Legalism teaches us that we can be accepted by God based on our actions. No one can avoid guilt from the law or achieve conformity to the law. Legalism destroys our confidence. The gospel teaches us that Christ alone can save us. In this message on Acts 15:1–35. Pastor Bart Box teaches us about the attraction and absurdity of legalism.
- The attraction of legalism is rooted in our desire for acceptance before God.
- The absurdity of legalism is seen in the eternal plan of God and failure of man.
- The antidotes to legalism are found in gospel conviction, clarity, and consequences.
If you would take your Bible and turn to Acts 15. We’re going to continue our study in the book of Acts. Last week, we looked at Acts 13 and 14 where we really see the first missionary journey of Paul and Barnabas, striking out in those particular chapters, but this week we come to, really, a pivotal moment in the life of the church, and, particularly, in the book of Acts.
Acts 15 is not just central in terms of the length of the book. There are 28 chapters in the book of Acts, and so Acts 15 is pretty close to the middle, but it’s not only central in terms of where it is the length of the book, but also really, thematically, and just the heartbeat of what the church is spreading, what the church is saying, we see all of it crystalizes and is potentially derailed here in Acts 15 over a theological dispute, and so, we’re going to look at the issue of legalism in our lives, in the lives of our families, and the life of the church.
The message is entitled “Legalism: Its Attraction, Its Absurdity, and Its Antidotes.” I want you to read in Acts 15. We’re going to read verses one all the way over to verse 35. We’ll only really unpack verses one through twenty-one, but I want you to look if you would, read all the way to verse 35.
But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers. [Here’s the sum of their message. They said], “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question. So, being sent on their way by the church, they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the brothers. When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they declared all that God had done with them. But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and they said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.”
The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter. And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. Now, therefore, 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.”
Verse 12 says,
And all the assembly fell silent, and they listened to Barnabas and Paul as they related what signs and wonder God had done through them among the Gentiles. After they had finished speaking, James replied, “Brothers listen to me. Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take from them a people for his name. And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as is it written, ‘After this I will return, and I will reveal the tent of David that has fallen; I will rebuild its ruins, and I will restore it, that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by my name, says the Lord, who makes these things known from of old.’
Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood. For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he has read every Sabbath in their synagogues.”
Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They sent Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brothers, with the following letter: [This is what it said] “The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the brothers who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings. Since we have heard that some persons have gone out from us and troubled you with words, unsettling your minds, although we gave them no instructions, it has seemed good to us, having come to one accord, to choose men and send them to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, men who have risked their lives for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will tell you the same things by word of mouth. For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.”
So when they sent them off, they went down to Antioch, and having gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter. And when they had read it, they rejoiced because of its encouragement. And Judas and Silas, who were themselves prophets, encouraged and strengthened the brothers with many words. And after they had spent some time, they were sent off in peace by the brothers to those who had sent them. But Paul and Barnabas remained at Antioch, teaching and preaching the word of the Lord, with many others also.
Before I came to this faith family…and it’s been about two years since we arrived here…I served as a pastor for a smaller church in rural, northwest Alabama. It was a good time. I learned a lot about pastoral ministry. I learned a lot, certainly, about myself. I learned a lot about the people of God. God taught me all kinds of things during my time there, but I will never forget, though, the first time I met with the search committee from that church.
Now, search committees in Baptist life are a unique animal in all the world. They’re a really phenomenal body of people, if you’ve ever been involved in any way in a search committee, but I was living in New Orleans at the time, and so, they had asked…as we had been getting closer and closer and having greater and greater contact…they wanted to come and to hear me preach. So, they didn’t want to drive all the way to New Orleans. Obviously, they didn’t want to have it at the church where they were at because they wanted to wait on that. So, we arranged for a preaching event at a neutral field, and so I went to a church, another rural church, even a smaller church, and we decided to do it on a Wednesday night.
It was the only night that I had available. It was Christmas holidays, a lot of stuff went into it, and so we called the pastor of that church, and we got everything set up. So, I went there. It was a prayer meeting at a Baptist church on a Wednesday night. It had about 20 people there, and the search committee, it was about six or seven people, and so, they were there as well. So, I preached a message that night. I chose as my text on that particular occasion 1 Corinthians 1:18–25 which begins, “For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved it is the power of God.”
It includes the line that, “Jews seek a sign and Greeks seek wisdom but we preach a crucified Messiah, a stumbling block to Jews, folly to Gentiles, but to those of us who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the wisdom of God and the power of God.” So, I just preached a simple message on the cross of Christ, on the gospel. So, I finished preaching, and we greeted together the people that were exiting the church…the 20 or so members of that particular church…and then we went back to the pastor’s office…my wife, and myself, and the six members of that committee.
I’ll never forget…we sat down, and we had barely even had introductions, and one of the committee members said, “Listen. I really want to ask you something. I have a question that just arises out of what you preached.” He said…and he’s a dear brother in the Lord…and he said, “It’s a Wednesday night at a Baptist prayer meeting. Everybody here is Christian”…which by the way is an assumption, but we’ll just work with it. He said, “Everybody here is a Christian.” He said, “Why did you preach on the gospel to Christians?” My answer that night is the same answer that I would give anytime and that is, “I tend daily to forget the gospel.”
I tend daily to forget the gospel and all the implications of the gospel, and I need to be reminded. Every single day that stretches out before me, I need to be reminded of the gospel; that my standing with God has absolutely nothing to do with my performance for God, but it has everything to do with Jesus’ performance for me. That His life, His death, His resurrection, is my only hope, and it is my only basis for a right standing before God. I need to be reminded of the gospel, and I am convinced that this is not just a personal tendency. It’s not just a modern tendency.
This is not just a human tendency. This is a, particularly, Christian tendency. All believers have the tendency to forget the gospel. We see that even in Galatians 3, Galatians 3:1–3. Paul had poured his life in Galatia. He had preached the gospel. He had established the church there. He had moved on, and soon after, he gets word from the Galatian church that they have moved onto something else, and listen to what Paul says.
Paul says, “Oh foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish?” He says, “Having…” and this is the line that I want you to hear, “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” In other words, having begun in Christ, having begun in faith, having begun in grace alone in the Spirit are you now, then, leaving that behind and moving on to other things for your standing before God?
Works of the flesh, as he calls them there in Galatians 3:3. Martin Luther said it this way. Luther said, “The law is divine and holy.” Listen to that. Luther said, “The law is divine and holy. The law is right.” “It is good,” Romans 7 says. So, the law is holy and divine. “Let the law have its glory even, but yet, no law, be it ever so divine and holy, ought to teach me that I am justified and I shall live through it. I grant that it may teach me how I ought to love God and my neighbor, how also am I to live in love, and soberness, and patience, but it will not show me how I am delivered from sin, the devil, death, and hell.”
He says, “Here, instead, I must take counsel of the gospel, not the law. I must take counsel of the gospel. I must hearken to the gospel which teaches me, not what I ought to do, but what Jesus Christ the Son of God hath done for me. That he suffered and died to deliver me from sin and death. The gospel wills me to receive this and to believe it. And this is the truth of the gospel,” Luther says. Then, I love his conclusion. He says, “Most necessary it is, therefore, that we should know the gospel well, teach it unto others, and beat it into their heads continually.”
So, ever so lovingly, and ever so gently, and ever so humbly, I would love to beat the gospel into your heads, and in so doing, beat legalism out of your hearts. Tonight, I pray as we look into Acts 15, that we would see the seriousness of the issue before us; that everything hinges on what we think about the gospel. That our mission, our worship, our salvation, our confidence, everything hinges upon our certainty, and our belief, and our trust in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. So, what I want to do, is I want to walk you through parts of this passage in Acts 15.
Three Aspects of Legalism in Acts 15 1–35
I want us to see, first, the attraction of legalism, how we naturally gravitate toward it, and it’s part of the fallen condition. Mike Horton says that, “The native language of the sinner is law.” The native language of the sinner is law. We naturally gravitate to that, and we always will. Then, to see the attraction of legalism, to see the attraction in my life, to see the attraction in the way that I’m raising my four children, to see the attraction of legalism in that, and to see the attraction that even would attract us as a church towards a legalistic tendency. Then, I want us to look at a negative and positive prescription for how we might deal with that thinking about the absurdity of legalism. It just doesn’t work, and then to suggest, as we close, with some antidotes for legalism. How do we positively fight the fight in our lives and the life of this church against this tendency of legalism?
The Attraction of Legalism …
Notice, if you would, first, the attraction of legalism. We see, really, the essence of their appeal…the essence of the appeal of these brothers is found in verse 1 and verse 5. You might want to mark those verses in your Bible. We see their message in Acts 15:1. “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses…” Listen to what they say. They flatly deny…they say, “you cannot be saved.”
Now, obviously, this is not the entirety of their message, and so, we don’t have everything that they say. Luke is simply, here, giving us a summary…really an abbreviated version…of the entirety of their message that, unless you are circumcised, you cannot be saved. He expounds on that or expands it a little bit in verse 5. So, look down if you would in verse 5.
“Some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and they said, ‘It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.’” So, what we see here is this idea of circumcision is really shorthand for the entire Old Covenant.
Certainly, it is the sign of the covenant in the Old Testament, but they were not just wanting circumcision. Verse 5 tells us they were wanting circumcision and for them to keep the whole law. So, circumcision is a shorthand for the entirety of the Old Covenant. So, we see that here, and we also see that actually in Galatians, in Galatians 1, 2, and 3, but here’s what I want you to see, and this is key in this context, particularly in Acts 15. The brothers that come down from Judea that are teaching, “Unless you be circumcised you cannot be saved,” they are not…and note this…they are not explicitly denying Jesus.
They are not saying, “It is circumcision instead of Jesus.” They are not saying that, “It is the law of Moses instead of Jesus.” They are not saying, “Forget about the cross. Forget about His life. Forget about His resurrection. It’s all about circumcision. It’s all about keeping the law of Moses.” They weren’t saying those things. They were saying, “It’s Jesus plus circumcision. Jesus plus keeping the law of Moses.” They weren’t setting out to deny Christ in and of Himself.
They were just saying, “He is not enough. It’s Jesus plus something.” What I want us to be reminded of as we see…even in their appeal, what I want to be reminded of is that none of us…and I don’t believe that any of us that are born again by the Spirit of God ever set out to do this with the intent. None of us say, “You know what? Today, I’m going to read my Bible. I’m going to pray, and I’m going to deny the sufficiency of Christ. Those are my goals today.” We don’t really set out to do that. We don’t place that as an aim or a goal in our life, but we do see that it happens over and over.
… Is rooted in our desire for acceptance before God.
It happens all over the place as legalism creeps in. That tendency chokes out life in Christ all among us, and it begs the question, “Why is that? Why does legalism hold such an attraction? Why is legalism so alluring in my own life?” Simply this: because legalism is simply rooted in our desire for acceptance before God. We want God to like us. We want God to approve of us, and we know that God likes holiness, and God likes righteousness, and God likes all of these things.
So, we just connect the dots and say, “You know if God likes that, and if I do more of that, then God’s going to like me more, and God’s going to love me more, and God’s going to approve of me more, and He’s going to think of me more, and He’s going to accept me more if I just do all these things.” Every believer here tends towards that.
… Is evident in its appeal among the religious.
You say, “How do you know that?” Well, I think we see it. I think this universal tendency is evident in its appeal, especially, among the religious. Now, what I want you to see is, clearly, it’s not the half-hearted who struggle with legalism. It’s not those that are on the periphery usually. It’s those that are committed; those that are dedicated; those that are devoted to the things of God. These are the people, and many of us, by God’s grace, would even say that we count ourselves among them; devoted, dedicated, committed. It’s those people that are most prone to legalism, and I want to show you in three different classes, three different areas of Scriptures.
Notice, first, that the religious leaders in Jesus’ day, they struggled with legalism. We see it all the way back in the Gospels. Think about the Pharisees. Now, we have a particular image of the Pharisees, and we sometimes almost always have a negative idea, a negative connotation when we think about the Pharisees, but what I would suggest to you is that, if you were a contemporary of Jesus, you were around during the time of the Pharisees, more than likely, you would not have had as much of a negative idea about the Pharisees. They loved the Word of God. They taught the Word of God. They were zealous for holiness and righteousness. I would suspect that, if you were a parent, you were a mother in Jesus’ day, and a Pharisee walked by, you would have pointed your son…you would have pointed to that man, to that Pharisee, and said, “Son, when you grow up, I want you to be like that man.” They loved the Word of God. Yet, Jesus said of them…and this is all in one sermon by the way…Jesus said that they were “hypocrites,” “fools,” “blind guides,” “serpents,” “a brood of vipers,” “white-washed tombs,” and “sons of hell.” Why?
Why would Jesus reserve such vitriolic comments almost for people who loved the Word of God, who were zealous for holiness? Why would He reserve those? Because they were, in His own day, they were the epitome of legalism. They pursued an external righteousness rather than the righteousness that was right before them in Christ and Christ alone. So, He
rebuked them in the strongest terms because they were the epitome of legalism.
We see that the Pharisees struggled in Jesus’ day, but it’s not just the Pharisees. We see that the early church struggled with legalism. It’d be good if you got to the Gospels, and you turned to Acts, and it’s over; no more legalism, but what do we see, even in our own text? Verse 1? Verse 5? Notice verse 5, and I want you to see this. You may want to underline or circle it, but the very first part…we’re prone to skip to their message, but notice what it says, “But some believers…” These were not outsiders. These were not pagans. These were missionaries. They were coming all the way from Judea down through Antioch to spread the message. These were believers, and we see the same thing in Galatians 1:6–8. Listen to what Paul says.
You’ll see this in the coming weeks in your reading. Listen to what Paul says in Galatians 1:6–9. He says, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel…” Paul says it’s possible to turn to a different gospel, to turn to Jesus plus something, even among not just the religious, even among the believers. Jesus plus something, which Paul quickly says, “Is no gospel at all.” There’s no good news in it. We see that the religious leaders in Jesus’ day, they struggled with legalism.
The early church, they struggled with legalism. Thankfully, we do not. I mean we wouldn’t add to the cross of Christ, would we? We wouldn’t deny the sufficiency of Christ and His cross. Brothers and sisters, we may no longer be prone to base our standing upon circumcision, but I assure you the church today struggles with legalism. The church today struggles with legalism. Think about this, how often we base our standing with God, our acceptance before God, His view of us on things like how much I read my Bible or how much I memorize the Scriptures.
Think about how often we base our standing, how we think about how God thinks about us based on how much, and how long, and what time in the morning I get up to pray…assuming it’s the morning…based on how frequently I fast, or how much I give, or how consistent my family worship time is, or how many times I witness, how many mission trips I take, how much I participate in small group, what kind of father I am, what kind of husband I am, what kind of mother I am, what kind of wife I am, what kind of son I am, what kind of daughter I am, what kind of brother I am, what kind of sister I am, how zealous I am, how righteous I behave, how holy I am.
Now, I want to be really clear. I’m not saying that those are bad things in any way whatsoever. Please don’t hear, “Bart said we shouldn’t read our Bibles. That’s what I got. I’m good for the rest of the year. I’m caught up on Bible plan forever.” That’s not what I’m saying. I’m not saying don’t read your Bible. I’m not saying we shouldn’t pray. Pray without ceasing, all of that. I’m simply saying what the danger is, that Sinclair Ferguson identifies, which is this, “That every day we are tempted to smuggle our character into His work of grace.” Every day we are tempted to smuggle our character, who we are and what we have done, into His work of grace, and I would suggest to you that we will fight that fight until the day that we die.
We will always battle the “little legalist” that is lurking within, but what I want to show you is there is hope for that battle. There is a word for that battle. There is even a strategy for that battle that we see in Acts 15, and that’s what I want to spend the remainder of our time together looking at as we look at, really, two different strategies. As I mentioned earlier, one negative, one positive.
The Absurdity of Legalism in Acts 15 1–35…
… Is seen in the eternal plan of God.
First, as we look at the absurdity of legalism, and then, notice in the text some antidotes to legalism. Let’s look first at the absurdity of legalism. In other words, “It just doesn’t work.” It doesn’t make sense. Why don’t you look, if you would, particularly in verses 7 and following. Look if you would in Acts 15:7. We kind of see Peter’s speech as he begins. He says in verse 6, “The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter.” What we have in Acts 15:7…all the way down even to verse 19, 20, and 21…we have three sustained arguments from the leadership in the early church against legalism. What all of them are saying…and they all have different elements to it…but all of them are simply speaking to this: that the absurdity of legalism is seen in the eternal plan of God.
What I mean by that is simply this: that God never, ever intended…not in the Old Testament, not in the Gospels, not in Acts, not in the Epistles, not in Revelation, not in our lives…God never intended for a single person to be saved by the works of their hands. God always and forever intended for salvation to be by faith alone in Christ alone, always. That it is the eternal plan of God; that saints in the Old Testament look forward to a Redeemer that we understand as Christ, and saints in the New Testament looked back to the cross and see their sufficiency, see the grace that we find in and through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. That has always been the plan.
So, it doesn’t make sense is what I’m saying. It’s absurd to say, “We’ve got a better plan than God. I know this is the eternal plan of God, but let us set it aside because we have a better plan, a legalistic plan, a way to earn favor before God.” I want you to see how each of them arrived at this conclusion. First of all, we see that Peter saw God’s eternal plan, he saw God’s plan through the Holy Spirit. Now, what do I mean by that? How did he see it through the Holy Spirit? Look, if you would, at verse 7. Peter stood up and said, “Brothers, you know that in the early days God make a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe.”
No doubt Peter, here, is referring to the event that David walked us through a couple weeks ago, the conversion of Cornelius. Do you remember that Jesus in Acts 1:8 said, “You shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the uttermost parts of the earth”? So, Acts is really the unfolding of that plan, and Acts 10 is a seminal moment in the life of the early church as the gospel finally crosses that last barrier, and the gospel goes even to the ends of the earth beginning in the life of Cornelius. However, it begs the question, “How did Peter know that what he was speaking to Cornelius…salvation in Christ alone, by faith alone, through grace alone…how did Peter know that that message was not a perversion of the real gospel?” How did he know that what he was speaking was indeed the eternal plan of God?
He tells us in verse 8, “And God, who knows the heart…” How did he know it? “…he bore witness.” God bore witness to them, to the Gentiles. How? “…by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us…” Peter says, “I know it was real. I know that the gospel is true and that the eternal plan of God is salvation in Christ alone by faith alone, because God gave them the Holy Spirit.” It begs the question, again, as you keep backing it up…backing it up…how did Peter know that they had received the Holy Spirit? We won’t go back there, but if you look in Acts 10:44–46, we know it, and we can say it. We’re Baptists. We know it because they spoke in tongues.
That’s how they knew it. I’m not saying that that’s always going to be the case. I’m not at all saying that that is what is going on. I’m saying that in that particular instance God validated the gospel that Peter was preaching. He validated it, and He validated the giving of the Holy Spirit in response to that gospel by speaking in tongues in the same way that He did in Acts 2. Peter saw it through the Holy Spirit. We also see then…Peter steps aside, and we see that Paul and Barnabas, the same idea, they see it. They see God’s plan. How? Among the Gentiles.
Just one quick verse that Paul and Barnabas are giving here in verse 12. “All of the assembly fell silent” in response to what Peter said, and they “listened to Barnabas and Paul as they related what signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles.” It’s this same idea really. We’re not going to spend a lot of time. Here’s the same idea that we see in the life of Peter. Peter realized that this gospel was genuine, salvation in Christ alone, by faith alone, by grace alone. He realized it was true by the speaking of tongues.
Well, they realized it by signs and wonders. God did amazing things in their midst to validate the gospel that they were preaching, that this indeed was the eternal plan of God. Then, we see it even in the life of James. James sees God’s plan. How? He sees it not through the Holy Spirit, not among the Gentiles. James sees it in the Scriptures. Verses 15–
18…if you want to put verses out beside it, but we don’t have time tonight to unpack everything that James is saying here…but he refers his listeners back to Amos 9, and the bottom line of James’ speech is this: James is simply quoting the Old Testament to demonstrate that what Peter saw, what Paul saw, and what Barnabas saw was not an innovation. It was not something unexpected. It was not something that was unpredicted. Rather, it was the eternal plan of God revealed in the Old Testament, realized in the New Testament that God has always intended to save people, not on the basis of what they have done, but on the basis of His Messiah.
… Is apparent in the universal failure of man.
That is the eternal plan of God, and so it is absurd to think that we can set it aside, but not only is that absurdity seen in the eternal plan of God; not only do we look upward and see how absurd it is. We just look around, and we see the absurdity. We see it in the universal failure of man. We see it in the eternal plan of God. What we behold in the Scriptures, and then, what we see in our experience, in the universal failure of man. Look at what Peter says in verses 10 and 11. You see it in verse 10 in particular. This is the conclusion of Peter’s message. He says, “Now, therefore, 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?” Peter says, “You don’t have to look around very far, neither we nor our fathers.”
Two things that Peter says. One, Peter says that, “No one can achieve conformity to the law.” That no one can achieve conformity to the law. Don’t you love, or maybe, rather, don’t we hate the image that Peter uses here that the law is like a yoke? It’s a burden. It’s something that weights us down. It’s something that we absolutely cannot bear, but notice the Scriptures say that the law is not bad. The law is good. The law is holy, and divine, and right. The problem is not the law. The problem is us.
No one, no one…I don’t care. You pick them out. You think of the most holy person that you know. No one can achieve conformity to the law. Paul says that there is no distinction…Jew and Gentile…all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. No one can achieve conformity to the law, and because that is the case, the second point follows from it. No one then can avoid guilt from the law. No one can achieve conformity to the law; no one can avoid guilt from the law. Isn’t that the irony of legalism that, what it seeks to apprehend…acceptance before God, approval before God, standing before God…the very thing that it seeks to apprehend is the very thing that it denies, because it sends us running in all the wrong places.
It sends us here, and there, and here, and there and never to Christ, and because of that, the weight of the law just piles up, and we garner sin after sin, and burden after burden, and the guilt, and the anguish, and the angst just bottle up inside us, and it, eventually, drives us to despair or it drives us to pride. Oftentimes to both. It just doesn’t work, and so I know that this is not a high hope; this is not a high goal for a sermon, but please walk away with this understanding: legalism is dumb. Don’t tweet that or anything, but just walk away with that understanding. It just doesn’t work. It’s absurd because it sets aside the eternal plan of God, and it flies in the face of everything that we know about ourselves and everything that we know about everybody else.
The Antidotes to Legalism in Acts 15 1–35…
Nobody can do it, and so that leads us, then, to what I think are some positive prescriptions, some positive avenues, tools to deal with legalism in our own lives and the life of the church. So, I want you to notice just three simple antidotes that I think we see suggested in the text tonight.
… Are found in gospel conviction.
First of all, the antidotes to legalism are found in gospel conviction. The antidotes to legalism are found in gospel conviction. You say, “What do you mean by gospel conviction?” Look with me, if you would, in verses 19 through 21. This is the upshot. This is the conclusion that James arrives at, and then, certainly, the conclusion that the elders and the apostles arrive at along with him. He says, “Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood.” That’s quite a list. Verse 21, “For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he has read every Sabbath in their synagogues.”
It seems, does it not…when you read that list…it seems as if James gets to the very end, and he gives is up. It seems like he goes right up to the free grace, and the free mercy, and then he kind of backs up and says, “Well, but it would be good if you do ‘X, Y, and Z.’” Is James just really one of the party of the Pharisees? Is he just adding to the law like the rest? Adding to the cross like the rest of them? I don’t think that’s the case at all. In fact, when you look at this particular grouping, if you look at them again, they’re to abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, what’s been strangled, and from blood.
This cluster of things to avoid is, most scholars believe, associated with Jewish customs and Jewish tradition; Jewish scruples about ways they ought to live, particularly, in the environment of a pagan world. So, what James is saying is, “Listen. Jews just have a natural aversion as they’ve read the Old Testament over and over. They don’t want to be involved in temple rites. They don’t want to be involved near temple festivals. They don’t even want to be near those things. So, out of love towards your brother and sister in Christ, your Jewish brother and your Jewish sister in Christ, out of love for them just abstain from those things.”
In other words, what he is saying is that we are to be flexible in matters of indifference. That we are to be flexible in matters of indifference. In other words, we don’t need to be inflexible. We don’t need to be narrow-minded about everything. We don’t need to have the strongest possible opinion about every single issue that is raised in the Bible and that is raised in contemporary culture. There are some things across our body that we’re just going to disagree about. There are certain ways of life, there are certain ways that we think about our homes and all kinds of things that we’re just going to have a little bit of a difference opinion about things.
The truth is that’s okay. It’s okay to have a difference of opinion about matters that are not of utmost importance. We are to be flexible on, what I would call, matters of indifference, but notice this: we are to be inflexible in matters of the gospel. We are to be inflexible in matters of the gospel. No, everything does not ascend to that level. Everything is not of the highest priority, but the gospel is. Paul said in Galatians 1:8, he said, “But even if an angel…” Listen. “…a heavenly being.” He said, “If a heavenly being comes and should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one that I have preached to you let him,” he says, “be accursed.”
The word “accursed” there is the word “anathema.” It means to cut someone off. To put it into our everyday English, Paul was saying, “If somebody comes to you, an angel from heaven, I don’t care who it is.” He says, “If someone comes to you, and they preach to you a different gospel than the one that I have delivered to you which is faith alone, in Christ alone, by the grace of God alone. If they come to you, and they preach a different gospel, let him or her go to hell.” You say, “That’s extreme. That’s serious.”
I would say, “Yes, it is extreme, and, yes, it is serious, but that is how extreme the gospel is, and that is how serious the gospel is.” So, I would ask you where is the gospel in your life. Where is the gospel in your convictions? Are you more concerned about secondary matters, about who is doing this and who is not doing this, and how they don’t line up with everything that you believe, and everything that you think, and everything that you practice, or the same for me? Are we more concerned about those secondary matters and less concerned about the primary matter of the gospel?
… Are found in gospel clarity.
We must have gospel convictions, and notice, also, we must have gospel clarity. We must have gospel clarity. It’s not enough to be convinced about the gospel. We must be clear about the gospel, and that’s what we see in the context of this passage. Look, if you would, in verse 11. I would suggest that verse 11 is…it’s the end of Peter’s speech…but I would also say that it is the heart of the passage. It’s the heart of the passage. It’s the heart of the message.
Look at what he says in verse 11, “But we believe…” In other words, contrary to other things, “No, no, no. We believe this, but we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus just as they will.” He gives us two things. One, we are saved by grace alone. Peter says two things. We are saved by grace alone. Luther said this, “The only contribution that we make to our salvation is the sin that God so graciously forgives.” The only thing that we bring to the table…not our past accomplishments, not our present holiness, not our future righteousness…the only thing that we bring to the table is nothing but our sin.
He brings it all. That’s why Paul will say, “For it is by grace you are saved and not of yourselves.” The faith, the grace, everything is the gift of God, so that no man should boast. It’s all of grace. Peter says that, “We are saved by grace alone,” and he says that, “We are saved by Christ alone.” That we are saved by grace alone, and that we are saved in Christ alone, that because of His death and resurrection, He is our hope. He is our rock. He is our confidence. He is our power. He is our wisdom. He is our justification. He is our righteousness. He’s our sanctification. He is our redemption. He is our life, and He is our boast. He is all that we have. We’re saved by grace alone in Christ alone, and I would ask you again, “Are you fluent?” Are you fluent in the gospel? Are you clear? Are you unambiguous that we are sinners and that there is nothing that we bring to the table apart from our sin, and that Jesus Christ is the only hope of our salvation for me, for you, and for the entire world?
… Are found in gospel consequences.
Are we clear on that matter? We need gospel conviction affirming what the Bible affirms, denying what the Bible denies in terms of the gospel. We need gospel clarity, and last, we need to think through gospel consequences. We need to think through gospel consequences. I’m convinced that one of the best ways that we can fight in our own lives, and in the lives of our children, the life of this church, one of the best ways that we can fight against that is to remember what is at stake in this matter. In other words, to think critically, to think seriously about what is at stake in this matter of justification, righteousness by faith alone in Christ alone.
I want to suggest that, number two, that I think we see flowing out of this text; really taking a step back…what do we see some of the consequences are? Notice first: we must remember that legalism threatens the mission. Legalism threatens the mission that God has entrusted to us. If we don’t have this message…salvation in Christ alone, by grace alone, through faith alone…if we don’t have that message, I would ask you, brothers and sisters, what do we have? What do we have to offer? A world that is headed to hell. Our music? Our movies? Our conversation? What do we have? We don’t have anything. Paul said, “I am not ashamed of the gospel.” Why? “For it’s the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes, the Jew and the Gentile.” That is our power. That is our message, and if we lose that power, and we lose that message, we lose the mission. So, let us hearken to the gospel. We give into legalism, we give away the mission.
Number two, notice that we must remember that legalism obscures God’s glory; that legalism obscures God’s glory. Verse 14, James says, “Brothers, listen to me. Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles…” To do what? “…to take from them a people for his name.” God intends to be glorified in the salvation of His people through the blood of His Son, and any time we give into legalism, any time that suggests that we can do anything to add to our justification, we simultaneously rob God of the glory that is due His name, and I know that’s not our heart, and that’s not the heart of any regenerative believer. So, in light of that, away with legalism and up with Christ.
It threatens the mission. It obscures the glory of God. Notice, number three, remember that legalism undermines our salvation. It undermines our salvation. We see this throughout the entire passage. One writer has said, “Legalism is useless against the devil.” As I said earlier, how does it send us in the wrong direction? How does it move us away from Christ and not to Christ? Simply in this way: legalism is useless against the devil. No law ever defeated him, robbed him of his strength. No law plundered his domain. No law released his captives. No law broke his back. Law never cast him out, never rebuked him, never bound the strong man. It took God the Son, a cross, and an empty grave to do those things. We do not want to undermine the salvation that Christ has purchased by His own blood by suggesting there’s anything whatsoever that we do to that.
Last, we must remember that legalism destroys our confidence. That legalism destroys our confidence. I want you to notice. It’s just one little line that’s tucked away in verses 30 and 31, particularly the end of verse 31. It’s the effect of the letter upon the congregation. “So when they were sent off, they went down to Antioch, and having gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter.” I want you to notice what they say, what Luke tells us. “And when they had read it…” which had said, “Look. We’re not laying any burden upon you. No burden upon you. It’s Christ alone.” When they read that letter, notice what it says. Luke tells us, “They rejoiced because of its encouragement.” They rejoiced because of its encouragement. The true gospel provides hope, and encouragement, and confidence before God.
In 1510, Martin Luther took a trip to Rome. Now, many of you know that that is prior to Luther’s conversion. The Reformation didn’t occur until 1517, seven years after this trip to Rome that Luther took, but Luther was at that time a monk. He was a teacher of the law. He was a teacher of the Word, and Luther was miserable. He was driven to despair. He beat himself. He was guilty. He was in anguish. He was driving them crazy at the monastery, going back and forth confessing his sins.
He would go and confess his sins and then walk away and run back and confess them all over again. So, they got so tired of him and so sick of him that they said, “Just go to Rome. Go. Go.” So, they send him to Rome in hopes that that would somehow alleviate his angst and somehow bring him a fresher understanding of his faith and relieve the guilt and the burden that he daily dealt with. One of the reasons they sent him to Rome was because in
Rome there were all kinds of holy relics to which a person could come, and they could pray, and they could attach themselves to those, and they could see them, and appreciate them, and thank God for them, and all these kind of things, and in so doing, they could knock years off of purgatory.
So Luther, desiring to knock some years off because he knew that one day his bad works would outweigh this good works, and he would have to spend 500 years in the half-way house of purgatory…he knew that he would love to knock some of those years off his sentence before God. So, one particular relic that was famous in Rome, and still is even to this day, was something called the “Scala Sancta.” You see a picture of it there on the screen. Rome…the church…taught that the “Scala Sancta” were the very steps upon which Jesus walked up to meet with Pilate in Jerusalem.
So, they had transported all of these steps back to Rome, and now they were holy steps. It was taught that if a person would simply go up these steps and pray upon the steps they could knock years off of purgatory. In fact, there was even a specific number assigned to each prayer. So, every time that you prayed on a step, you could take nine years off of your time in purgatory. There were 28 steps, and so, for those keeping score at home, that’s 252 years that you can knock off of purgatory by praying upon these steps. So Luther, being the devout monk that he was, and the particularly burdened and guilty monk that he was, said, “Hey. I’ll do that.”
So, he got down the first step, dropped to his knees, and he prayed the Lord’s Prayer. He got up; he got to the next step, dropped to his knees, and prayed the Lord’s Prayer. Step, after step, after step he prayed the Lord’s Prayer until, finally, he got to the top. He knelt down one last time, “Father in heaven. Hallowed be your name. Thy Kingdom come…” except he didn’t say it in English. He prayed the Lord’s Prayer one last time, got up, and Luther records this later in his writings in classic Luther fashion.
He got up from his knees, looked down, and said, “Who knows if it’s true.” Brothers and sisters, the gospel speaks a better word to us than that. The gospel speaks a word to us that says that, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those that are in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:1) The gospel speaks a word to us that says that we have access to God through faith because of the Lord Jesus. The gospel speaks a better word to us that says that if God is for us, brothers and sisters, who can be against us? The gospel speaks a better word to us that says that, “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also, with him, graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32)
The gospel speaks a better word to us that says, “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect?” (Romans 8:33) The gospel speaks a better word to us that says no one shall…for Christ Jesus has died, yes, Christ Jesus has raised, and He is at the right hand of God, and He intercedes for you and for me. The gospel speaks a better word, and if that is the case, brothers and sisters, for the sake of the mission, for the sake of the glory of God, for the sake of the salvation in Christ that we possess by faith, and for the sake of our confidence, for the good of our souls, brothers and sisters, let us make much both this evening and for all of eternity of the gospel of free grace and free mercy found only in Jesus.