One of the tremendous truths of the gospel is that we are brought into a relationship with God only through the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Paul says to the Ephesians, ‘For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—9 not by works, so that no one can boast.’ (Eph 2:8-9) Jesus is the very heart of the good news, and we need nothing else to be saved.
So often, however, we struggle with this great truth, and the early church was no different. Jews found it incredibly difficult to accept that salvation was available to Gentiles as well as to them and that the Gentiles no longer had to adopt Jewish practices such as circumcision or obey Jewish laws in order to be saved. Jewish groups frequently caused Paul great problems on his missionary journeys, and at the start of Acts 15, we see that this had coalesced into a firm view: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” (Acts 15:2) This question went to the heart of the gospel and brought them into sharp dispute with Paul and Barnabas, who were appointed to go to Jerusalem to discuss this matter with the apostles and elders there. (Acts 15:2-4)
It’s thought that Paul wrote his letter to the Galatians at around the same time as this, and in that letter, he talks a lot about the problems caused by this ‘circumcision group,’ declaring that they were effectively preaching another gospel, ‘which is really no gospel at all.’ (Gal 1:7) He was adamant that neither circumcision nor anything else connected to Jewish law was needed for salvation: ‘We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.’ (Gal 2:15-16) This conclusion took time to work out (as we will see in our future studies of Acts 15), but it remains at the heart of the gospel, and one of the things of which we frequently need reminding.
It can be difficult and painful to let go of years of tradition and teaching – or at least to see things in a new light; none knew that better than Paul himself, who had persecuted the church because of his zeal for Judaism. But every time we are tempted to add ‘and’ to Jesus (e.g. Jesus and tradition, Jesus and circumcision, Jesus and good works), we need to stop and remember that He is the sole source of our salvation. We need nothing else.