by Al Maxey

Issue #587 ------- August 29, 2013
With all progress this happens: speech becomes
less until it finally ceases in a nobler silence.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)
Journal: September, 1842

Simon's Sect Silencing Speech
Reflective Study of Peter's Proclamation
to the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15:7-11

It was the middle of the first century, probably around the year 50 A.D. A critical council was taking place in the city of Jerusalem, the outcome of which could very well have a tremendous impact upon the success or failure of this movement we call Christianity. Long past was the Pentecost that had witnessed the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in fulfillment of the prophecy in Joel 2:28-29 (cf. Acts 2:16). The outpouring of the Spirit in the same way upon Cornelius and his household was also in the past. The church of our Lord Jesus was growing and expanding throughout the empire, and diverse peoples (Jews, Gentiles, even Samaritans) were being incorporated into this universal One Body of believers. There was a spiritual unity in diversity, but that diversity was becoming the source of some concern among some disciples. There was an element within the church still loyal to their Jewish customs and traditions, convinced that no one could truly be saved unless these were embraced. This posed a challenge to the Gentiles, as one might imagine. Must Gentiles embrace certain tenets of Judaism in order to truly become disciples of Christ Jesus? One representative tenet seemed to rise above the others as a salvific requirement: circumcision. It became the "test case" upon which the future of "The Faith" would be founded. If circumcision was added as a valid condition of salvation, the door would be open for countless additional "conditions of salvation" drawn from cherished religious customs and traditions. Thus, dissension and debate reached a fever pitch among diverse disciples until the whole issue was brought to Jerusalem to be prayerfully considered by the apostles and elders themselves. This meeting would come to be known as the Jerusalem Council, a recounting of the significant specifics of which is preserved for us in Acts 15. Some of the great first century church leaders were present and involved: James, Peter, Paul, Barnabas, and Silas, to name only a few.

The specific teaching that occasioned this council was: "Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved" (Acts 15:1). "Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate" (vs. 2) with these men from Judea, as this was a challenge to the Gospel that had to be refuted vigorously and immediately, for their operating premise was that, in order to be saved, "the Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses" (vs. 5). In Jerusalem, "the apostles and elders met to consider this question" (vs. 6), and "much discussion" took place among them (vs. 7). It is important to note that before these spiritual leaders of the church met to consider the matter, they gave all sides an opportunity to state the case for their convictions. I believe J. W. McGarvey is absolutely right when he observed, "Men who are in error can never be convinced that they are wrong by denying them freedom of speech. Not till they have been allowed to express themselves to the last word are they capable of listening dispassionately to the other side. The apostles, knowing this, or at least acting on it, permitted the Judaizers in the church to say all that they wished to say before any reply was made to their position and arguments" [New Commentary on Acts of Apostles, vol. 1, p. 62]. Too frequently we make the mistake of seeking to silence those who differ with us, rather than seriously listening to and reflecting upon their teaching. Only after a fair hearing, and sufficient prayerful study and consideration, should we rise in opposition to the position of a brother or sister in Christ. Yes, there will be times we must do so (Titus 1:11), and do so boldly and forcefully, but to do so prior to a fair hearing is unconscionable, no matter how false we may believe another's teaching or practice to be.

The first to speak out from among the Twelve was Peter. "After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them" (vs. 7a). "It seems to have been wise on Peter's part to allow the meeting to exhaust itself by fruitless disputations before he rose to speak. His rising, with all the authority of his person and position, commanded immediate attention" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 18: Acts, pt. 2, p. 2]. Peter spoke not only as one who had walked with Jesus, but also as a Jew who had been commissioned to be the first to share the Good News with the Gentiles (Cornelius and his household). Thus, his perspective on this matter would be highly relevant, and perhaps both sides of the debate harbored hopes that he might side with them. However, "whatever hopes the Judaizers had about Peter were false. His doctrine of grace is as clear as a bell. He has lifted his voice against salvation by ceremony and ritualism" [Dr. A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, e-Sword]. In his past, Peter would likely have sided with the Jewish legalists, and had even had a recent relapse of faith, for which Paul confronted him in Antioch (Gal. 2:11f), but Peter knew, within his heart, that things had changed dramatically under the new covenant of grace. Thus, "he arose to rehearse his own experiences which had given him new light" [Dr. B. W. Johnson, The People's New Testament with Explanatory Notes, p. 482]. "Peter spoke out unambiguously in the interests of gospel liberty. ... He has completely recovered from his temporary lapse at Antioch" [Dr. F. F. Bruce, Commentary on the Book of the Acts, p. 306].

The central problem facing the church at this time was that the challenge of the Judaizers essentially negated the basic truths of the Gospel that salvation was by grace through faith; that it was a gift from God, not based on any meritorious effort by man. In essence, their theology implied the insufficiency of the divine initiative! God's gift of His Son was not sufficient unto salvation. It must be supplemented with some degree of human effort, representative of which, at this time and place, was circumcision (those of this mindset today would place some other requirement in its place). It was a negation of divine grace; a return to human effort. In short, it was a perversion of the Gospel (Gal. 1:7). Paul pronounced an "anathema" upon such persons (Gal. 1:8-9). "The gospel of His grace was meant to be a source of blessedness and deliverance; how insensate the folly of tying to it any institutes which would make it become an insufferable vexation!" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 18: Acts, pt. 2, p. 10]. "Salvation by perfect obedience to formal rules, and faithful keeping of covenant terms, had been thoroughly tried in Judaism, and it had certainly and hopelessly failed" [ibid, p. 23]. Yet, some within the early church were determined to return to law (keeping commands, observing rituals) as, at least in part, the basis of their salvation, just as many seek to do today. In so doing, they are "fallen from grace" and "severed from Christ" (Gal. 5:4). Yes, as Dr. A. T. Robertson stated, "Peter lifted his voice against salvation by ceremony and ritualism" that day in Jerusalem in 50 A.D., and his message is just as needed today as it was then, for there are still disciples proclaiming that Jesus + ____ = salvation. Typically, we seek to fill in that blank space with some human act which we believe must be performed precisely according to "the pattern" before God will bestow salvation upon us. "It is the same false and dangerous doctrine which has cropped up in the church at all times, namely, that the keeping of law is essential for meriting salvation" [Dr. Paul E. Kretzmann, Popular Commentary of the Bible: the NT, vol. 1, p. 608].

Peter's statement is brief and to the point. It mentions grace and faith; it speaks of the cleansing of the heart; it recounts the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. And it says absolutely nothing about any ritual or ceremony being necessary. Indeed, Peter does not even mention that Cornelius (of whom he was speaking here) was baptized. To have done so would have tended to validate the premise of the Judaizers: i.e., the insufficiency of the divine initiative without some supplemental human effort. This is precisely why Paul emphasized the following fact: "Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel" (1 Cor. 1:17). The Gospel is NOT about what man must do to help acquire God's favor; it is all about what God has done to lift helpless man into His loving embrace. Peter was determined to give no fuel for the fire of the legalists; rather, he emphasized that salvation is by grace through faith, and that to impose any act of human effort upon that equation is an affront to the Gospel itself. The legalists, sacramentalists and ceremonialists hate this statement by Peter: the Lord God "cleansed their hearts by faith." Our cleansing from sin, our acceptance by God, our justification and salvation are "by grace through faith, not of ourselves; it is the gift of God" (Eph. 2:8). As Peter reflected back on God's acceptance of the Gentiles, he realized that He had cleansed their hearts by faith and "not by works nor ceremonies" (the theology of the Judaizers to the contrary), which means that "Peter here has a thoroughly Pauline and Johannine idea of salvation" [Dr. A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, e-Sword]. I have a strong feeling Paul must have had Cornelius and his household in mind when he wrote the Galatian brethren, "I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing law, or by believing what you heard? ... Does God give you His Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe law, or because you believe what you heard?" (Gal. 3:2, 5). Again, no mention of any ceremonies or rituals performed precisely according to some "pattern."

"Cornelius and his household had not even made an oral confession of faith when the Holy Spirit came upon them, but God, who reads the hearts of men, saw the faith within them. And if God accepted these Gentiles and cleansed their hearts by His Holy Spirit as soon as they believed the gospel, why should further conditions now be imposed on them which God Himself plainly did not require?" [Dr. F. F. Bruce, Commentary on the Book of the Acts, p. 306-307]. This was the clear message of Peter that day at the Jerusalem Council. "The real question for admission to full standing in the visible church is the state of the heart, and not the yoke of burdensome ceremonies" [Drs. Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown, Commentary Practical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, p. 1105]. Yet, the Jewish legalists were demanding a return to such customs, laws, traditions and rituals in order to be saved, just as some today demand the same. The reality is: our cleansing, our justification, our salvation are all accomplished solely by the Lord, not by the acts of any man. Dr. John Gill (1690-1771), an English pastor and theologian, rightly observed, "To make a clean heart is a creation work, which is peculiar to God: the heart cannot be purified, neither by ceremonial ablutions, nor by works of moral righteousness, nor by humiliations and tears, nor by submission to ordinances, such as baptism, but only by the grace of God and the blood of Christ, which the Spirit of God sprinkles upon the heart, and which faith looks to" [Exposition of the Entire Bible, e-Sword]. "It was evident that salvation for man must be an intervention of divine love, a manifestation of divine grace. Salvation is a divine gift, offered freshly and freely. And this is the very essence of the gospel message" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 18: Acts, pt. 2, p. 23]. That was the message Peter defended that day in his brief speech.

"Both Jew and Gentile were accepted by God on the basis of their faith in Christ. ... Their hearts were purified by faith" [H. Leo Boles, A Commentary on Acts of the Apostles, p. 236]. The Jewish legalists, however, were in effect questioning God's judgment on this matter, "as though God had made a mistake when He gave the Holy Spirit to the household of Cornelius and accepted them without circumcision" [ibid]. We should further note that this acceptance by God also came prior to the baptism of Cornelius and his household, a baptism which Peter does not even bother to mention in his recounting of this salvation account before the Jerusalem Council. Why did he leave that event out? Because the cleansing and acceptance were by grace through faith, NOT by any human act. Baptism and circumcision were covenant responses of one's faith in God's grace, but neither was the precise point of the conferring of that grace. For this very reason Paul went to great lengths to show that even Abraham, the father of those who are justified by faith, was justified before his circumcision, not after. "Faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness. How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised" (Rom. 4:9-11). Even circumcision was not regarded as a sacrament that conferred grace, but rather as a sign or seal of that conferred grace. Brethren, the same is true of water baptism. It is a visible sign and seal of God's redemptive grace; a manifestation of faith. To elevate this evidentiary act to THE specific and definitive act which saves us is to replicate the same mistake of the Jewish legalists of the first century who were making the same claim for circumcision. Peter opposed those who taught this perversion of the gospel then, and his words stand against such teaching today as well.

God judges hearts, and He bases His acceptance or rejection of people upon the nature of their hearts, as Peter so powerfully proclaimed that day in Jerusalem. "God, who knows the heart, showed that He accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them" (Acts 15:8). It was not circumcision that caused God to accept (and SHOW His acceptance of) Cornelius. Indeed, it wasn't even water baptism, as God's acceptance of Cornelius (and the demonstration of that acceptance) occurred before he was baptized. The baptism of this man and his household was important for many reasons, as I have discussed in previous articles, but since it was NOT the basis of their acceptance with God, Peter does not even mention it in his speech at the Jerusalem Council. This, of course, would not be lost on those seeking to impose circumcision. "The judgment that men could not be saved without law was but the inconsistency of an intolerant dogmatism" [Dr. Charles Ellicott, Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 7, p. 96]. These Jewish legalists "looked on the Gentiles as impure because they did not observe the ceremonial law and the traditions of the elders. ... Peter had learned that it was in the heart, and not in the flesh, that the work of purifying was to be accomplished" [ibid]. "The purification of the heart by the Holy Spirit was the grand object of the religion of God, and that alone by which the soul could be prepared for a blessed immortality, and the Gentiles had received that without circumcision" [Adam Clarke, Clarke's Commentary, vol. 5, p. 800].

"Peter declared that faith, the true circumcision, that of the heart, not of the body, purified them. ... This is the hope of both Jew and Gentile, not obedience to the ceremonials of Moses" [Dr. B. W. Johnson, The People's NT with Explanatory Notes, p. 482]. It is also faith, not the ceremonials of Christendom, that purify and save today, although many continue to pervert the gospel message, just as they did almost 2000 years ago. "Every rule and order that emphasized merits and works on the part of man would naturally detract from the glory of the free grace of the Lord. ... The arguments of Peter were unanswerable and caused the opponents to become and remain silent" [Dr. Paul E. Kretzmann, Popular Commentary of the Bible: the NT, vol. 1, p. 608]. "The multitude became silent after Peter's speech; he had profoundly impressed the multitude and had presented such clear and forcible arguments that there was nothing that could be said with profit" [H. Leo Boles, A Commentary on Acts of the Apostles, p. 237]. Oh, that the words of the apostle Peter would silence the legalistic sacramentalists of today as effectively!! Yet, they continue to proclaim as LAW far more than Peter ever did in his powerful speech before the Jerusalem Council. "We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved" (Acts 15:11), and our God purifies our hearts by faith (vs. 9). "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith -- and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God -- not by works, so that no one can boast" (Eph. 2:8-9). Thank you, Simon Peter, for your powerful and perceptive speech that day in Jerusalem. May it have the same mighty effect today in silencing the sectarians who, in the spirit of their forefathers, continue to proclaim shadow over Substance and tradition over Truth!

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Readers' Reflections

From a Reader in Oregon:

Enclosed is my check for your following CD offers: A Study of Revelation, the two CD set of your 2012 Sermons in MP3 audio format, and your companion CD of the PowerPoint slides for each sermon. Thank you. Also, I have a question: In your two CD audio set of your Bible class on 1st & 2nd Peter -- Encouragement for the End Times -- do you take the view of the literal end of the world?

From a Reader in Tennessee:

Al, please send me the following CD sets, for which my check is enclosed: From Law to Liberty: Reflecting on our Journey away from Legalism and into Freedom in Christ ... the two CD set: The Nature of Man and his Eternal Destiny ... and the special: First Decade Collection of your Reflections (Dec. 2002 to Dec. 2012), which also contains your Autobiographical Photo Journal. Thank you!

From a Minister in Texas:

"Grandfathered Status Theology" (Reflections #586) was another excellent post! Thank you for sharing your in-depth studies with the public. For more than forty years I preached and taught that water baptism was essential to salvation, but I was having a continuing problem resolving Ephesians 2:8-9 and Titus 3:5 with my position, until one day, while driving down the road, it came to me that water baptism is a work of man. This cannot successfully be denied. The baptizer goes (verb) down into the water and baptizes (verb) another person: it is a physical act performed by man upon man. If, as Paul says, we are not saved "on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness," then how could water baptism (a deed done in righteousness) possibly save us?! As I now see it, imposing water baptism as essential to salvation is no different from what the Galatians were doing when they sought to add circumcision to God's free gift of salvation. This has serious implications, because Paul wrote that those who add to God's good news of a free gift (by adding works) are "fallen from grace" and "severed from Christ" (Galatians 5:4). People need to prayerfully consider this!!

From a Minister in Indiana:

I enjoyed your latest Reflections article. I must admit that I had not heard of this "grandfathered status" theology with respect to baptism. Wow! Also, I was glad that a comment in the "Readers' Reflections" section led me to your article on Acts 22:16 (Reflections #507). As usual, I found it very interesting and challenging. I wanted to remind you, though, that there are those of us who believe/teach that baptism is the point of pardon, yet we would not be comfortable with the mindset behind the practice of "men standing at the four corners of the baptistery to make certain every toe, finger and strand of hair got all the way under the water." Surely there is some reasonable middle ground. Unless I am self-deluded, I believe it is possible to hold my position without being a "water regenerationist" or "rigid sacramentalist." One can believe that baptism in water is THE point of salvation, while at the very same time allowing for God's grace to cover all of those who didn't "get it exactly right." I really like how Dr. Jack Cottrell states it within his book (Baptism: A Biblical Study) -- "Salvation is BY grace, THROUGH faith, AT baptism, FOR good works."

From a Minister in California:

I have never heard of this "grandfathered status" viewpoint either. However, if someone is bent upon making a pattern out of a narrative, rather than hearing/perceiving the message, then I guess such a theology is not all that outlandish, sadly. Patternists will always go with patterns over biblical principles.

From an Author in Louisiana:

It is dangerous to begin with a conclusion. That's exactly what many people do when they open their Bibles. The Bible is God's revelation to humanity. It is not a book of proof-texts to prop up our presuppositions. Many years ago, when I started to allow the Word of God to inform my beliefs and shape my life, I started to learn that much of what I had been taught was completely untrue.

From a Reader in Oklahoma:

"Grandfathered Status Theology" was a great article, and one that should cause us to think and question all assumptions before making them "Gospel."

From a Reader in Texas:

Logic seems to be the missing ingredient in the "reasoning" of so many people, even those who may be regarded as "learned." Your explanation in your latest Reflections, however, is excellent and logical. Thank you, brother.

From an Elder in Wyoming:

Thank you for your continued work, Al. In reality, very few, if any, really understood baptism when they were baptized. In fact, most people weren't really baptized to have a relationship with Christ, but simply to be "saved from going to hell." In keeping with some people's beliefs and theology, therefore, shouldn't most people be rebaptized?! Just a thought. Keep up the good work!

From a Reader in Georgia:

Whether or not the apostles were baptized in water, in my humble opinion, isn't a big deal. Jesus Himself told them in Acts 1:5, "John baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now." Peter reflects on that moment as he is describing the events connected to Cornelius and his household, and their reception of the Holy Spirit, and says that they received that Spirit "just as we did" (Acts 11:15-16). And this was prior to their baptism in water. Romans 8:9 tells us that if we do not have the Spirit dwelling within us, then we do not belong to Him. My guess is that in too many circles, water has replaced the Spirit in priority. Your last couple of Reflections have been very interesting to read and reflect upon. Thank you for sharing yourself with me again this week! You are spreading seed that will provide "food" for generations to come, Al. I pray for the continued success of your work. I know that this will bring with it a certain expectation of ridicule and attack from others, but a man like you, who knows how to handle a .50 caliber in combat, I'm not worried about!!

From a Minister in Texas:

Al, thanks for the thoughtful analysis of the different types of baptism and whether or not they may have been retroactive or "grandfathered." You are really helping me to question my assumptions now! So, why do we assume that the 12 men in Ephesus were actually immersed into water again? We separate the idea of their baptism from Paul's laying his hands on them, but why?! Does the Greek really suggest here that they were immersed again in water, or could they have been baptized with the Spirit through the laying on of hands of Paul? If the apostles could be "baptized" with the Spirit on Pentecost without water, then why can't others? I find it very interesting that Paul, in 1st Corinthians, proclaims that he was glad he didn't baptize many people there, because "Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel" (1 Cor. 1:17). If the act of baptism in water is critical to one's salvation, then shouldn't the greatest minister to the Gentiles be spending ALL of his time down at the river "washing away sins" and "clothing people with Christ"?! I agree with you that, for many people, baptism in water has become a sacrament that has replaced grace and faith; for many, the "true message of the cross" has become baptism. Thanks again for your study and work.

From a Minister in Kentucky:

I appreciate your examination of Hugh Fulford's latest "News & Views." The lengths to which he and others go to establish their doctrines is truly astounding! I fully realize that his attempt to get people into the water if their baptism is not "correct" is, as you say, "assumption built upon assumption to prove assumption." What caused my mouth to fall open was his statement in the last paragraph of his latest "Hugh's News & Views" (from his article titled "Relationship With Christ"). He wrote, "But in order to 'come' to Christ, one must take some steps! To maintain a relationship with Christ, one must 'walk in the light' (1 John 1:7), and walking involves taking steps! Let no one be guilty of denigrating the 'steps' in God's plan of human redemption!" To support his contention, Hugh Fulford lifts this verse (1 John 1:7) totally out of context, because he thinks it fits his purpose by "proving" that "walking" with God involves taking "steps." This is a blatant misuse/abuse of a very meaningful passage. To try and make it apply to the "five steps" in the mistakenly named "plan of salvation" is inexcusable!! Had he continued reading into the second chapter of 1st John, Hugh would have seen that to walk in the light is to walk in love. Thus, he takes away from the meaning of a powerful, sublimely beautiful verse, completely misapplying it to support his preconceived notion about water baptism. Thanks for all you do, Al, in exposing and refuting such teaching.

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