Approaching the fifteenth chapter of the book of Acts, the passages before us, with a missional hermeneutic is no small task because of the many themes that must be taken into account. In order to see the manifold beauty of the glistening facets of God’s mission, this essay will address, in no particular order, the following themes: The mission of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the mission of the catholic church, and God’s overarching mission to manifest his refulgent glory to the world.1 These themes are not only similar, but also interconnected to sweeping mission that God is accomplishing in the world. This chapter in the book of Acts is essentially God’s continuing revelatory mission of making Himself known as the sovereign and triune God who saves sinners through the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is through faith alone that sinners are to receive this Gospel. Furthermore, it is also a glimpse of God’s sovereign purpose for His church to preach and defend the Gospel.
Preparatory work. Before we examine the passages in Acts fifteen, it is crucial to establish some preparatory work. Thus, it is critical to state the fundamental framework that this essay will be operating from. The hermeneutical framework that will be employed, for the benefit of understanding the overall purpose of God’s mission, is found in Christopher J. H. Wright’s book, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative.2 According to Wright, mission is ultimately rooted in God’s ultimate purpose for the world; it is the sacred mission that the Lord is accomplishing. This may be ascertained in the bounds of revelation alone. It is the Scriptures that present to us the revealed mission of God for His church and the world. Hence, the church’s mission to “Go into the world and proclaim the Gospel to the whole creation” (Mark 16:15), is properly a participation in God’s mission, rather than a disconnected mandate from God to His people to accomplish on their own. The people of God find their mission subordinate to the mission of God. With God’s unveiled mission from the Scriptures as the center of divine purpose, all other missions ultimately gravitate around God’s mission. Wright explains that the aim of The Mission of God is to engage and examine the Lord’s global mission. He summates, “It could be said that the mission of this book (The Mission of God) is to explore that divine mission and all that lies behind it and flows from it in relation to God himself, God’s people and God’s world, insofar as it is revealed to us in God’s Word.”3
Another preparatory work that is extremely important, in terms of comprehending this chapter more fully, is establishing its purpose and context. There is a twofold purpose to Luke’s account of the spread of the Gospel and the early formation of the Christian church. First, it is the expansion of the work of God “in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8), as promised by the Lord. As the Gospel was preached, so the expansion of the work of God increased. With the progression of the Gospel, the church progressed. Second, the book of Acts also traces the development of the early church. This is essentially Luke’s historical depiction of what took place at the time of the Apostles. Hence, the title of the book is the “Acts of the Apostles.”
In terms of context, the entire book may properly be divided between Peter’s ministry and Paul’s ministry. The former part of the book deals extensively with Peter’s ministry to the Jews that resided in Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria (Acts 1:1-12:24). As for the latter, it deals primarily with Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles (12:25-28:31). Luke begins by instructing the disciples to wait for the promise of the Holy Spirit. Then, in chapter two through seven, he expounds the event of Pentecost and Peter’s sermon and Stephan’s martyrdom. Soon afterwards, the church is faced with harsh persecutions that results in its dispersion to Palestine and Syria. The apostle Paul is also converted during this time. And finally, the first missionary journeys are realized.
The significance of justification by faith alone in God’s mission. These opening sentences of Acts 15 are of supreme value to the church, for they address a defense for God’s most important mission: God’s will to be known through the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This Gospel is what the Apostle Paul calls “of first importance” (1 Cor. 15:3). Indeed, the glory of God and the mission for His church shine forth from the Gospel. In Jesus Christ, whom the “whole fullness of deity dwells bodily…” (Col. 2:9), God’s glory is made manifest. As Wright points out, “Where Jesus is preached, the very glory of God shines through.”4 And, the purpose of the church is to share the good news that Jesus Christ has satisfied the wrath of God for those who would believe in His name; God’s redemptive purpose has been fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Therefore, the defense of this Gospel is crucial to the very mission of God in redemptive history. Not only was this a relevant issue in the days of the Apostles, it is also a relevant issue today and in the future of Christendom.
With the conquest of the Gospel amongst the Gentile nations, a crucial problem has arisen. Namely, certain brothers, presumably of Jewish backgrounds, have infiltrated the church with a most serious doctrinal error. Here, we are told that these certain men were advocating, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1). In other words, according to these men, in order to be saved from the wrath of God, Gentiles must not only have faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, but they must also perform the law given to Moses and be circumcised like the Jews before them. Faith in Christ is inadequate; observance of the Old Covenant is necessary; not by faith alone, but by faith and works.5 The Apostle Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians provides for us a detailed account of the severity of this debate. In which he boldly proclaims that those who are preaching works as a ground for our right standing with God are actually preaching a contrary Gospel.
Why is this issue so important? On the surface, this may seem like a menial, theological discourse between some of the Apostles (Paul and Barnabas) present and the men ensconced with this particular error, but the implications of this error are massive to the mission of God in Christ for His glorification and our justification. A consideration of what is at stake when one affirms that salvation is by faith and works, as the Roman Catholic Church teaches, is necessary to understand why this issue is treated with utmost care in the early church. Evident from the fact that a council was established to settle the matter (Acts 15:6). Throughout church history, especially during the time of the Reformation, the doctrine of justification has been of prime importance. Thus, many historical confessions articulate the significance of this teaching. For instance, the Westminster Confession of Faith beautifully articulates: “Q. 70. What is justification? A. Justification is an act of God’s free grace unto sinners, in which he pardoneth all their sins, accepteth and accounteth their persons righteous in his sight; not for any thing wrought in them, or done by them, but only for the perfect obedience and full satisfaction of Christ, by God imputed to them, and received by faith alone”6 Here, three interconnected, vital issues are of supreme importance:7
(i) The sinfulness of the human race. Firstly, the introduction of works to the Gospel compromises the sinfulness of the human race. The ground of this heresy presupposes that one is fully able to observe the law given to Moses. Not only does this ideology make the law unholy but it also ignores the clear teachings of the Bible about man. Namely, man is completely ruined in sin via Adam’s sin and actual sin. Therefore, he cannot perform the law without introducing sin to the picture. The Apostle Paul argues, “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20). Contrary to the Apostle Paul, these men, who erroneously teach that observing the law is a requirement to be saved, are in essence asking believers to embark in an impossible task. It is to downplay, to say the least, the severity of the human condition. Therefore, in agreement to the Apostle Paul, the Apostle Peter gives the following insight: “…why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will” (Acts 16:10-11). And, at the heart of this error, denies the all important doctrine of original sin.
(ii) Nullifies the imputation of Jesus Christ. With the undermining of human sinfulness and denial of original sin via Adam’s sin, this deviation necessarily nullifies the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to guilty sinners.8 If Christ’s righteousness is not ultimately transferred to our account, rendering us sinless before God, then our own righteousness must atone for our sin. This is in fact a blasphemous and prideful ideology of man. Biblical revelation declares that God has come down to save sinners, not sinners climbing up to God.
(iii) The satisfaction of Jesus Christ. Secondly, and most importantly, the complete satisfaction of Jesus Christ is altogether abrogated with the affirmation of works as a ground to our justification before God. If, before the tribunal of God, our works are presented as evidence of our righteousness, Christ would have suffered on the cross for no purpose. In essence, what these men are proposing is this: “Christ was only an example.” In other words, Christ did not satisfy, or make “propitiation” (cf. Rom. 3:25; Heb. 2:17; 1 John 4:10), for our sins on the cross. It is to ultimately empty the cross of its power to redeemed sinners. However, the biblical narratives reveal to us that the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ is of central importance in our redemption. As Wright points out, “Only in the cross is there forgiveness, justification and cleansing for guilty sinners.”9
The mission of the church. In the tradition of the early church, the Gospel is to be preached and defended with the greatest of sincerity. Any deviation from the free grace of the Gospel must entirely be resisted to uphold the glory of Christ, the central mission of God. Furthermore, the church’s evangelism stands on the foundation of the doctrine of justification because the Gospel is only ‘good news’ if God Himself is the one who atones the wrath-deserving sin that we are consumed by, instead of our futile exertion of perfectly obeying the law. Therefore, it is the church’s mission to proclaim the all sufficient Gospel that saves through faith alone. Those who put their trust in the perfect obedience of Christ may gain a right standing with God; it is the sweetest of exchange; the sinner receives the righteousness of Christ and Christ pays the penalty of his sin! Evangelism is a participation of sharing to other fallen sinners that God has done for them what they could not do for themselves; namely, they could not atone for their sins. The Gospels liberates us from our sin and brings us to a sanctified union with God. That, indeed, is the mission of the church.
Conclusion. In light of the significance of the doctrine of justification to the early, present, and future church of Christ, as articulated from the above discourse, it is evident that the redemptive mission of God pivots on this all important doctrine. That is why the church has always been adamant in its preservation. Not only is it central in God’s redemptive purposes, it is also central in God’s glorification in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. If mission seeks to make known the glory of God to the world, then opposition to this teaching is not to be tolerated, but corrected. Therefore, to distort the doctrine of justification is not simply erroneous, but a defiance to the overarching mission of God.
1. This list of themes is a simplified adaptation of Christopher J. H. Wright’s ‘missional hermeneutic.’ Wright, Christopher J.H. 2006. The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative. Downers Grove, IL. InterVarsity Press.
3. Ibid., p. 23.
4. Ibid., p. 123.
5. I realize that there are those who cannot reconcile the teachings of the Apostle Paul and the Apostle James on this issue. Thus, disunity is argued for in the New Testament with regards to justification. However, upon further examination and exegesis, agreement between the teachings of the two apostles may be established. For further information on the ‘Paul and James controversy,’ see Sproul, R.C. 1997. Knowing Scripture. InterVarsity Press, pp. 83-84; Fung, Ronald Y.K. 1992. Right With God: Justification in the Bible and the World. D.A. Carson, ed. UK, World Evangelical Fellowship, pp.146-162.; Berkhof, Louis. 1996. Systematic Theology. New Combined Ed. Grand Rapids, Michigan. Wm. B. Eerdsmans, p. 521.
6. Westminster Confession of Faith. 2001. Alexander McPherson, ed. Glasgow, Free Presbyterian Publications, p. 163.
7. The following themes are raised by B.B. Warfield. See Warfield, Benjamin Breckinridge. 1968. Biblical and Theological Studies. Samuel G. Craig, ed. Philadelphia, PA. Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, pp. 262-269.
8. For more information on ‘imputation,’ see Biblical and Theological Studies, pp. 262-269.
9. The Mission of God, p. 315.