“We either stand by grace or works but not by grace and works. Both promise salvation but they promise salvation on different terms. The Judaizers proposed to put the Gentiles under the law (represented by circumcision) for salvation (justification, sanctification, and glorification) on the premise that the law is not so strict that we cannot keep it. They lowered the standard.”
The claim by some that there are two stages of justification (initial and final) and that the so-called “initial justification” is by grace alone (sola gratia) through faith alone (sola fide) and the so-called “final justification” is in some degree (either partly or wholly) through Spirit-wrought sanctification, faithfulness, or good works and the companion claim that “salvation” (i.e., justification, sanctification, and glorification) is in the same two stages has caused me to pay more attention in recent years to Scripture when it speaks of justification and/or salvation. Thus, when my pastor (the Rev Chris Gordon of the Escondido United Reformed Church and Abounding Grace Radio) reached Acts 15 last week I could not help but notice verse 15:
But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus just as they are.” 1
The context of the passage is the Jerusalem synod, which was called to resolve the questions raised by the Judaizers, who were teaching “unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1; NASB). Further, the Judaizers sought to impose upon the Gentile Christians the requirement “to observe the law of Moses” (Acts 15:5). Paul and Barnabas reacted strongly against the Judaizers (Gal 2:5—Paul and Barnabas “did not yield to them for an hour”). Paul even confronted the Apostle Peter (Gal 2:11–21) over his denial of the gospel—this was an actual “gospel issue.” Implicit in Peter’s refusal to eat with the Gentiles was the message that we are justified through the works of the law. To resolve the controversy the church sent Paul and Barnabas as delegates to synod (Acts 15:2–3).
At Jerusalem, after debate, Peter stood to speak.
After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brethren, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles would hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, testified to them giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us; and He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith. Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are” (Acts 15:7-11; NASB).
Peter’s understanding of his ministry is exactly what Paul wrote in Galatians 2:7–8. We see the good outcome of Paul’s rebuke in Antioch. At Jerusalem, Peter was crystal clear about the gospel. In Christ there is no Jew or Gentile (Gal 3:28–29). What matters is whether we belong to Christ by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide), then we are Abraham’s seed, “heirs according to the promise” (Gal 3:29). Of course, the promise to which Paul refers in Galatians is the promise: “I will be a God to you and to your children” (Gen 17:7).
The Judaizers sought to put a rabbinical “yoke” on the necks of the Gentile Christians thereby ignoring the centrality and finality of Christ in the history of redemption (Acts 15:10). Jesus did not merely come to make salvation possible for those who do their part (e.g., bear the yoke of the law) but to accomplish our salvation and to give it to his elect freely through faith alone (sola fide). The Judaizers were “testing” God and ignoring the reality already accomplished. Sola gratia, sola fide, they already had what the law required: righteousness and clean heart (Ps 51:10). Further, the Judaizers were demanding what they themselves we unable to perform. Paul had reminded Peter that he himself “lived like a Gentile” and yet he was implicitly requiring of the Gentiles that they become Jews to become Christians. Now Peter confesses the truth to the whole synod.