Galatians Part 1: Are Peter and James Confused About How to Be Saved?

The early Christians were confused.

The Apostles were confused.

Peter.  James.  John.

The men who followed Jesus were confused about how to get saved and how to stay saved.  Can you imagine?!  The Apostles confused about salvation!  They weren’t sure if salvation was by grace alone or there was something else they had to do.

They said things like, Yes, you have to believe in Jesus to be saved.  You have to follow Jesus to be saved.  But ….

“But” is always Jesus plus something.

The Apostles were confused.  A lot of Christians are still confused. Pastors. Church leaders. They’re confused! You’re confused!!

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A couple years ago, I was at the bank asking for money.  You probably know how painful that can be.  I’m not a Catholic, but getting a loan may be as close as I get to feeing what it’s like to go to confession.

The banker’s desk is oversized, maybe elevated.  And you sit across the marble slab in a little chair.  You chin is barely above the edge of the desk as you sit there quivering, gulping.

“So you want money,” the banker said to me firmly.

“Yeah,” I said weakly.  “But not that much.”

She saw in my application that I’m a pastor.  I made some joke about that, to which she responded even more firmly, “You have to be careful about that joking around.”

Smiling, I told her that I wasn’t worried about my relationship with God, that no matter what happened, I’d be going to heaven.

Ooh.  Not a good thing to say to a loan officer.  Looking at me fiercely, she pointed her inky banker finger  at my face and said, “You can never be sure you are going to heaven when you die.”

I didn’t want to argue the point, because I needed money.  But to find out why she would have said that, I asked her where she went to church.  “I’m Catholic,” she said.

Ok, this study of the book of Galatians isn’t about Catholics, but it is about people in every Christian community everywhere that think that doing good gets you to heaven, or at the very least, that you need Jesus plus doing something good.  Or not doing something bad.

This woman at the bank (and yes, it’s a true story), like so many other people, was confused.  But, hey, the Apostles – the original followers of Jesus! – were so confused about how to get saved and how to keep their salvation, they had to call a special meeting in Jerusalem.  What happens there is recorded in Acts 15:1-11 and provides a necessary context for understanding the book of Galatians.

Here’s the text from Acts 15, with my comments.

1.  Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.”

Here we have it, very early in the history of the church:  Jesus plus something, in this case, circumcision.  Of course,

2.  This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question.

There was a sharp dispute about grace and salvation, and the early church was not clear enough on the matter for these key leaders to know the “official” position of the Apostles.  This is remarkable, because some years have passed since Jesus ascended into heaven, and it’s not until we get more than half way through the Book of Acts that the early leaders of the church even raise the question.

So …

3. The church [in Antioch] sent them [Paul and Barnabus] on their way, and as they traveled through Phoenicia and Samaria [down the east coast of the Mediterranean]  they told how the Gentiles had been converted. [Non-Jews came to believe in Christ, with no heritage of God’s covenant and law]. This news made all the brothers very glad. 4. When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders, to whom they reported everything God had done through them.

Christians in Jerusalem, essentially everyone in the fledgling church there, were very glad.  But …

5.  … some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses.”

Let me repeat that:  some of the believers.  These confused people were believers, followers of Christ, likely baptized into the new community.  And some were still Pharisees!  I almost have to laugh when I read this:  believers who were Pharisees!  Not that this ever happens anywhere in the church today!

So they had to talk about it.  For a long time.  I have to believe their interaction was as hot as the August wind in the Middle East.

6. The apostles and elders met to consider this question. 7 After much discussion Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. 8. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. 9He made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. 10Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear?

This was an extraordinary moment, a turning point in holy history when the full light of the New Covenant dawned on the first Apostles, when the Old Testament fully morphed into the New.  These disciples, they followed Jesus.  They heard his message.  They saw him die on the cross.  They saw the empty tomb and the risen Christ. They believed.  They knew he was the way, the truth, the life … the only way of salvation … that no one could come to the Father except through the Son.  Yet they were not clear about the totality of the work of Christ until this moment …

11.  No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”

This is the heart of the Gospel, the center point of New Testament teaching.  Everything in the Bible is important, but everything in the Bible orbits around this central revelation:  “It is through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ that we are saved.”

Certainly, we have to take everything in the New Testament seriously.  From Genesis to Revelation, God’s Word calls us to obedience, but not in order to become his children, or even to make sure we stay in his family, but because we are already his children.

Our eternal salvation, the perseverance of our faith, is based on Jesus plus nothing.  My eternal relationship with God starts and ends with Jesus in me plus nothing, and that changes everything.

Are good works important?  Yes!  But not get ourselves saved, or even to keep ourselves saved, but because we are saved.

Jesus doesn’t come into my life because he likes my good works.  Can you imagine God looking down on your pre-Christian life and saying, “Wow!  Now there’s a pretty person.  She certainly got my attention.  I think I need to bless her.”

No!  While we were still enemies of God, he loved us and send his Son to die for our salvation.  Jesus comes into your life when you are a sinner!  Good works don’t bring into your life.  Jesus in you produces good works, good fruit.  Good works are the outcome of Christ in you.  Christians are fruit trees, not Christmas trees.

Good works don’t save me.  Good works don’t keep me saved.  Salvation is a gift of God-grace-from the beginning to the end.  Paul writes,

Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed – not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence – continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose (Philippians 2:12-13).

I don’t work for my salvation, or on my salvation, but I work it out, because it’s already in me.

Continue reading: Galatians Part 2: Jesus plus nothing?

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