The PCA and the Acts 15 Jerusalem Council

In Acts 15 the Church clarified the true gospel against the twin errors of legalism and antinomianism.

When homosexuals say, “I am a gay Christian”, we must say, “If God has cleansed your heart by faith, then you are a Christian only. If you find your identity partly in anything else, then you don’t understand God’s cleansing grace.” If our identity is in Christ, it must be only in Christ. If our identity is anything in addition to Christ, then we do not understand the gospel. A Christian is a bondservant and can only have one Master. He belongs to Christ and to no one or nothing else.

 

In preaching through the Book of Acts, I came to the passage recently which deals with the decision of the Jerusalem Council. Acts 15 is a proof text chapter for people who are Presbyterian or Reformed. We turn to this chapter to prove that the Scripture sanctions the right of appeal to a higher and wider body of the Church in order to settle disputes or points of theology. The actions of the Jerusalem Council certainly teach us that truth, but that is not the main theme of the chapter. This is one of the greatest chapters in the Bible for another reason.

In this chapter, the Church clarified the true gospel against the twin errors of legalism and antinomianism. Legalism was the error whereby certain men from Judea were disturbing the church at Antioch. They said, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1). That statement resulted in “great dissension and debate” (Acts 15:2) through the opposition of Paul and Barnabas to that false teaching. The Antiochian church then decided to send them to Jerusalem to have this matter deliberated by the other Apostles and elders there. After much discussion, the Council reached a conclusion which rejected legalism. But they also required the Gentile converts to refrain from immorality and three ceremonial laws. The key requirement is that they were to avoid fornication which is to remember that they are a holy people. Thus, antinomianism is also condemned by the Council at Jerusalem.

In his speech at this Council, James gave his judgment of how the Gentile converts should conduct themselves in the presence of the Jewish believers. He wanted them to voluntarily restrain themselves from eating blood, eating things offered to idols, and eating things strangled. Paul also taught the same thing in 1 Corinthians 10:23-33 wherein he encouraged the Corinthians to avoid offending the consciences of others, whether Jews or Greeks. Three of the prohibitions of James were not essential Christian duties, but only expressed a tender concern not to offend the weaker consciences of others.

The one essential and perpetual duty which James and the Jerusalem Council required of the Gentile converts was that they must avoid “fornication.” They were not free as Christians to be law breakers in other areas of their lives, though. Fornication was a huge problem in the pagan societies from which these converts came, and it was for this reason that James singled out that sin in his speech. James certainly would have agreed with Paul in Romans: “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may abound? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it?” (Romans 6:1, 2). In those words, Paul condemned antinomianism just as clearly as he condemned legalism in other places. James and the Jerusalem Council also condemned antinomianism and rejected the legalistic views of the men who had been disturbing the church at Antioch.

When J. Gresham Machen wrote his classic, Christianity and Liberalism, he referenced this fifteenth chapter of Acts to show that liberalism is another gospel. In my work, Historic Christianity and the Federal Vision, I referred to Acts 15 and the Jerusalem Council in the introductory chapter to prove that the Federal Vision is neither reformed nor the gospel. In the present fight within the PCA over homosexuality, there is no better place to turn than to Acts 15.

In 2007, the PCA General Assembly passed an Ad-Interim Committee report against the New Perspectives on Paul and the Federal Vision by a 90% majority vote. That seemed to settle the matter, but it did not. Pastors are still preaching the Federal Vision heresy within the PCA, but they do so by following the example of Doug Wilson. They say they are “Federal Vision No Mas” and, thereby, they do not use the name that they gave themselves.

But, like Wilson, they continue to teach the same things they always did. I realize there are many people who think that the FV has been rooted out of the PCA, but that is simply not true. I have received far too many reports from ministers, elders, and laymen all across the denomination to believe that the FV is no more. Moreover, the FV will be over when legalism is over. Until then, legalism will periodically repackage itself while retaining the two cornerstones of their position—salvation by ceremonies (circumcision, baptism, etc.) and salvation by moral works (keeping the commandments in order to earn salvation). Whenever people express either or both of these views, they are teaching legalism. The various court decisions of the PCA since the Steve Wilkins/Louisiana Presbytery case have permitted the Federal Vision to remain in the denomination as a viable theological position. Thus, the courts of the PCA have failed to follow the example of the Jerusalem Council on this issue.

The other attack on the gospel is known as antinomianism. It is the exact opposite of legalism. Legalism adds to the gospel—you must do this in order to be saved. Antinomianism detracts from the gospel—you can do this and still be a Christian. Legalism denies the gospel through a direct attack on it. Antinomianism denies the law by an indirect attack on the gospel. The problem in the PCA concerning homosexuality is antinomianism, pure and simple.

Homosexuals, whether celibate or practicing, fail to avoid fornication. They commit that sin either in their hearts or their bodies. Such lust is still heinous to the Lord. Homosexual lust is both wrong and unnatural which makes it even more heinous than heterosexual lust. So, the idea that someone who identifies as a same-sex attracted Christian is an acceptable candidate for church membership or office in the PCA is wrong. If the PCA sanctions antinomianism, then the gospel is dead in this denomination.

A careful analysis of the speech of Peter in Acts 15:7-11 reveals a subtle but important argument he made to counter the legalism of the Judaizers. They had said, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1). Their argument was that a person first had to become a Jew before they could be a Christian. Legalism places the law above the gospel. So, Peter countered that argument with his statement in verse eleven: “But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are.” Peter did not say, “But we believe that they are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as we also are.” Both statements are true, but only the first statement cuts the legs out from under the Judaizers’ argument. If Peter had reversed his statement in verse eleven, then the Judaizers would have countered, “Yes, but they haven’t been circumcised and we have.” The Judaizers would have stalemated Peter. Yet, Peter flipped the argument completely. He changed it from what the Gentiles had not done to what the Jews needed just as much as the Gentiles—the cleansing of their hearts by faith (Acts 15:9). In that way, Peter negated the importance of circumcision and emphasized that both Jews and Greeks needed the same grace. Peter’s argument is exactly the same one as Paul made in Romans 2:28, 29.

The self-proclaimed celibate gays, and their supporters in the PCA, have framed their argument in this debate in a way that the Church cannot accept. They are not saying you must be a homosexual before you can be a Christian (though Revoice does state that there are many things the Church could learn from ‘queer culture.’). What they do, instead, is to make this type of argument: We are homosexuals first and then Christians. They do not identify as Christians first. They qualify being Christian by their sexual identity as a homosexual. They claim to be unable to change their same-sex attraction. In fact, Greg Johnson said, “God has not made me straight.”

Their dominant identity, therefore, is not as a Christian, but as a homosexual. The Church cannot accept their premise. We must take a cue from Peter and flip the narrative on them. We must argue that the question is this: Has God cleansed your hearts by faith? They blame nature for their problems. We must emphasize that supernatural grace is the answer. They say, “God has not made me straight.” We must say, “The new birth changes everything.” Paul said in Titus 3:5— “He saved us . . . according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and the renewing of the Holy Spirit.” Christians have a new heart, a new nature, and a new identity.

The danger of accepting that starting point of celibate gays is that they then try to frame the argument that anyone who disagrees with them is lacking in compassion. The Church cannot fall for that argument. What counts the most is grace—not nature. Homosexuality is an unnatural sin and, no doubt, is difficult to overcome. Temptation to sin is very real for everyone. No Christian is excluded from temptations until he or she is perfected in holiness in eternity.

Yet, it is not compassionate to accommodate homosexuality. Rather, such accommodation is a denial of the gospel. It is allowing antinomianism to pare down the gospel. It is a denial of the cleansing grace of the gospel. Of course, someone might say, “Well, I have believed in Christ, but still God has not made me straight.” We answer that the cleansing of grace comes through faith alone. Where true faith is present, the washing of regeneration and the renewing of the Holy Spirit will also be present.

The real issue is not a lack of compassion by us but a denial of the cleansing grace of God through faith by the celibate gays and their supporters. When homosexuals say, “I am a gay Christian”, we must say, “If God has cleansed your heart by faith, then you are a Christian only. If you find your identity partly in anything else, then you don’t understand God’s cleansing grace.” If our identity is in Christ, it must be only in Christ. If our identity is anything in addition to Christ, then we do not understand the gospel. A Christian is a bondservant and can only have one Master. He belongs to Christ and to no one or nothing else.

There are many people who will agree with everything I have written up to this point, but are still convinced they should remain in the PCA and fight. While preparing my sermon on Acts 15:1-21 last week, I perused Derek Thomas’ commentary on Acts. Thomas is no longer in the PCA and, therefore, does not have a dog in the fight of this dysfunctional infighting over homosexuality in this denomination. But he did write some words concerning the debate within the Jerusalem Council that are appropriate for us to consider:

The decision regarding circumcision must have been received with enthusiasm by the church in Antioch, which, quite frankly, was not likely to go in any other direction anyway. It is a matter of conjecture, of course, but without too much doubt, the church was set on a collision course on this matter. Had the Jerusalem church disagreed on this issue, Paul and the Antioch community would have probably gone on their way, parting company not only with the synagogue, but also with the church in Jerusalem, which they would have regarded as less than a valid expression of a church founded upon the new covenant in Jesus Christ.[1]   

I would go a little further than Thomas. I think there is no doubt that Paul would have split with Jerusalem if the decision had been anything other than what it was. Galatians covers much of this same matter, but in more detail. In that epistle, Paul referred to the men from Judea who were disturbing the Antiochian church as “false brethren secretly brought in, who had sneaked in to spy out our liberty in Christ Jesus, in order to bring us into bondage” (Galatians 2:4). He called their message “a different gospel” (Gal. 1:6) and said, “There are some who are disturbing you and want to distort the gospel of Christ” (Gal. 1:7). He then said about that different gospel by the false brethren: “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” (Gal. 1:8). He repeats that last statement in Galatians 1:9 with only a slight change of words. I see no way that Paul would have tried to work with the Jerusalem church going forward if they had equivocated on the gospel. He would undoubtedly have walked away, shaken the dust off his feet, and continued to preach the eternal gospel like the flying angel that he was.

The PCA has already accommodated legalism by not disciplining those who taught the Federal Vision in Missouri Presbytery, Pacific Northwest Presbytery, and Siouxlands Presbytery, among several others. It is now on the verge of accommodating antinomianism by permitting a professed celibate gay pastor to go undisciplined. When the 2020 General Assembly meets in Birmingham in June, the great issue will be whether the PCA follows the example of the Jerusalem Council and rejects this antinomian/homosexual perversion of the gospel which has been perpetrated by the Revoice Conference proponents. If the issue is resolved through meaningless equivocation via a report that can be interpreted differently by different people, then the PCA will have denied the gospel. If that happens, how much more does the PCA have to do to make it clear that she does not care to guard the gospel?

Everyone has to make their own choice. I have made mine. The gospel is more important to me than any friendship or denomination. I cannot imagine the author of Romans 1 staying in the PCA unless this next Assembly comes to “one mind” on the issue of homosexuality and rejects this antinomian perversion of the gospel. I cannot imagine the author of Galatians accepting the Federal Vision as an acceptable view of salvation. We must uphold the gospel of free grace alone by faith alone in Christ alone. Wherever and whenever anything is added to or taken away from that pure gospel, we must be prepared to walk away from that church or relationship or denomination. In essentials, there must be unity. Nothing is more essential than the gospel which must always be protected against legalism on the one side and antinomianism on the other side.

Dr. Dewey Roberts, Pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Destin, Fla., and is the author of Historic Christianity and the Federal Vision and Samuel Davies: Apostle to Virginia.

[1] Derek Thomas, Acts (Philipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 2011), 418.