This question poses a critical issue. We can be wrong on a lot of things, but we don't want to be wrong here. If you talk to ten different people on how a man is saved, you'll get ten different responses. People will say, "You must: believe, repent, confess, commit, be baptized, join the church." According to some, you even have to have a Futuristic eschatology in order to be saved. R.C. Sproul Jr. said that Preterism is a "fatal-damnable heresy," which means if your eschatology is wrong, you cannot be saved, you're under God's wrath. I'm sure you can see the importance of this question. To answer this question from the Scriptures let's go to Acts 15.
In the book of Acts we see the birth of the Church on the day of Pentecost at the Jewish Temple. From there the Church grew and flourished but stayed in Jerusalem until the martyrdom of Stephen. Following the martyrdom of Stephen, the Church spread to Phoenicia, Samaria, Cyprus, and then to Antioch. The Christians who arrived in Antioch at first shared the Gospel with the Jews only, but then some of them began to preach also to the Gentiles in the city. Many of them came to faith as a result, and thus the church at Antioch became the mother church of the Gentiles. This was the church to which Barnabas brought Paul to become part of the teaching staff, as it were, before they both departed on the first missionary journey, which is covered in Acts 13 and 14.
At the end of chapter 14 Paul and Barnabas have just returned from the first missionary journey and then, having met with the church in Antioch, shared with them the things that God had done among the Gentiles. But then some from Judea come and begin to teach:
And some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brethren, "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved." Acts 15:1 NASB
Notice that Luke says, "They 'Came down from Judea'"—it doesn't matter where in the world you are, be it north, south, east, or west of Jerusalem, according to Scripture, you are always going UP to Jerusalem, and DOWN from Jerusalem, which is the mount upon which the Lord resides.
These men from Judea were teaching: it's perfectly all right to believe in the deity of the Lord Yeshua, it's perfectly all right to believe in the atoning work of Christ, it's perfectly all right to believe in His death, burial, and resurrection, but in order to be saved, you must be circumcised.
This introduced an issue which split the church at Antioch wide open. They were really saying, "In order to become a Christian, you must first become a Jew." Their "Gospel" might be stated: "Christianity is Jewish. To be saved, one must believe in Yeshua of Nazareth as the Christ, but in order to be a part of this covenant community, Israel, one must become a proselyte, which is entered into by circumcision, which obligates the individual to keep the Law of Moses."
To these "Judaizers" salvation meant identifying not only with Christ, but with the nation Israel. It meant placing oneself under the Mosaic Covenant and keeping the 613 Laws of Moses, as defined by Judaism.
This specific issue has long ago passed away as a concern to us; nobody today is saying you must be circumcised to be saved, but the principle behind it is very, very present with us today. A majority of the different groups who claim to be Christian insist on adding something to the Gospel. So this is not an obscure issue that we don't have to consider; this is something we must understand because this teaching is everywhere today. Notice Paul's and Barnabas' response to this teaching:
And when Paul and Barnabas had great dissension and debate with them, the brethren determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders concerning this issue. Acts 15:2 NASB
"Dissension" is from the Greek word "stasis" from which we get the English word, "static." There was an uproar in the church at Antioch, because the apostles felt this was false teaching, and they didn't hesitate to speak up about it. No sentimental namby-pamby, spineless love characterized Paul and Barnabas. But they spoke out. There was an explosion in that church that was related specifically to the doctrines of the Word of God.
There is always strife when we talk about the way of salvation. That is because there is such a difference of opinion about the way of salvation. Some have the idea, "It doesn't really make a difference what you believe, so long as you believe it with fervency and with zeal, because God will accept us if we come to Him, no matter how we may come to Him." That's very, very wrong, biblically, but nevertheless, that's the way the world thinks. It thinks that everybody is going to heaven, though they are traveling by different roads. And, if they are religious people, it doesn't make a bit of difference which religion they may have, so long as they have religion. Now, the Scriptures are utterly opposed to this, but many people—most people—do not read the Scriptures.
This was not a side issue; it had to do with salvation itself. This was not a matter where there could be disagreement among believers, with some believing you must be under the law, and some believing it wasn't important. This was an issue that went to the core of Christianity, and it had to be resolved.
Paul and Barnabas saw to the heart of the question and stood firm against these new teachers, disagreeing with the men and challenging the basis of their teaching and questioning their arguments. But it was finally agreed by the whole church that what was necessary was to go to the apostles and the mother church in Jerusalem and discover their minds on the subject:
Therefore, being sent on their way by the church, they were passing through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and were bringing great joy to all the brethren. Acts 15:3 NASB
And so, Paul and Barnabas and a few others made their way to the city of Jerusalem under the official auspices of the church at Antioch; and, along the way, they stopped at little gatherings of Gentile believers and Jewish believers, and they told them of the things that had been happening among the Gentiles. And those Christians rejoiced in what Paul and Barnabas told them about the things that were happening among the Gentiles.
And when they arrived at Jerusalem, they were received by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they reported all that God had done with them. Acts 15:4 NASB
The apostles and church leaders held the first Christian Council to settle the issue. The "apostles" here must mean those of them who were present, seen as representing the whole:
But certain ones of the sect of the Pharisees who had believed, stood up, saying, "It is necessary to circumcise them, and to direct them to observe the Law of Moses." Acts 15:5 NASB
Pharisees who had come to believe in Yeshua? How did that happen? There were over 500 witnesses talking about a man who rose from the dead. Obviously the resurrection of Christ got their attention.
The Pharisees were renowned for their high regard for the law and their scrupulous observance of the law. They argued that all who responded to Christ and became Christians had necessarily to be circumcised in order to enter into the covenant, and must then observe the whole Law of Moses. This would involve among other things Temple worship and the offering of sacrifices when in Jerusalem, the payment of the Temple tax, separation from Gentiles who did not observe the laws of cleanliness wherever they were (regular washings in order to maintain cleanliness, avoiding all that could render unclean according to Jewish principles), strict observance of the Sabbath by not working, and a following of the multitude of 613 Laws that governed the daily living of every Jew.
And the apostles and the elders came together to look into this matter. Acts 15:6 NASB
It is evident that the leaders of the church in Jerusalem had not taken a position and had not dealt with this matter, because it is only at this time that they met to determine what their position would be. How could this be? Why had they not had to deal with this issue? It is because there were no Gentile Christians in the Jerusalem Church, or the question would have been settled before.
And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, "Brethren, 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. Acts 15:7 NASB
"And after there had been much debate"—this would have been amazing to see! Christians serious enough about the truth to debate about it! These people believed truth was important. When is the last time that you debated with someone about Scripture? It seems that we want to talk and argue about everything except what is really important, God's Word. Shouldn't we be making a serious effort to understand it?
"Peter stood up and said"—this was after the matters in dispute had been fully debated; and now the apostles, like judges, after hearing counsel on both sides, proceed to give judgment on the case.
Peter reminded all present of his own experience with Cornelius and his fellow-Gentiles many years before, and of how God had chosen him to take to these Gentiles the Good News with the result that they had believed.
Even before Peter finished his sermon at Cornelius' house, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they began speaking in unlearned foreign languages, just as the Jews had done at the Day of Pentecost. It happened right after Peter had said:
"Of Him all the prophets bear witness that through His name everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins." Acts 10:43 NASB
Please notice that the ONLY thing that Peter tells these Gentiles that they must do is BELIEVE! To believe in Yeshua means that I believe He is the Son of God who gave Himself on the cross for my sins. To believe in Yeshua means that I no longer rely on anything in myself to commend myself to God. Rather, I trust only in what Yeshua did on the cross as my hope for forgiveness of sins and eternal life. This is Peter's message, and this is the Gospel. Do you see anything in this Gospel message about works, or repentance? No, it is all about faith.
"And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us; 9 and He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith. Acts 15:8-9 NASB
What had been especially significant was that God, Who knows the heart of all men, had borne witness to the fact that even while they were uncircumcised, He had cleansed their hearts by faith, for He had given to them His own Holy Spirit in precisely the same way and with the same signs as He had previously done to the Jews who believed.
"Made no distinction between us and them"—Peter makes an important observation. It comes straight from his vision of the clean and unclean animals from which God taught him this principle: God has shown to me that I should not call any man common or unclean (Acts 10:28). Those of the sect of the Pharisees who believed thought that the Gentiles were inherently "common" (in the sense of "unholy") or "unclean," and had to be made holy and clean by submitting to the Law of Moses.
Peter's argument is that God would not give His Holy Spirit to those who were unclean (uncircumcised) in their hearts. The fact that He sent the Holy Spirit on the Gentiles the instant that they believed, apart from their being circumcised, shows that salvation is by faith alone, not by faith plus circumcision or some other act of keeping the law.
If God testified to their salvation, based solely upon their faith, how could anyone require anything more of Gentile Christians? Furthermore, God did not make any distinctions between these new Gentile saints and those who came to faith who were Jews. How could this Council make any distinctions in the Gospel which was proclaimed to Gentiles?
If the salvation of those Gentiles in the home of Cornelius set not only a precedent but a pattern, then simple faith in Christ alone was all that was necessary for a Gentile to be saved:
"Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? Acts 15:10 NASB
To "test" God was to question the judgment of God. To insist that they must be circumcised in order to be saved—when God has indicated His approval of them by giving them the Holy Spirit—that is to tempt God.
I'd like for you to notice that term that is used for being under the Mosaic Law—it is "a yoke." Both Peter and Paul speak of being under the Law of Moses as being under the yoke of bondage. Then Peter says this:
"But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Yeshua, in the same way as they also are." Acts 15:11 NASB
This "we" is the apostles and elders: "We believe that through the grace of the Lord Yeshua, we shall be saved, even as they." In other words, Paul, Barnabas, and I and others agree, salvation is through grace. If we are saved through what we do, we're not saved by grace. That's quite a statement for a Jew to make! You would have expected, "They are saved in the same way as we are." But, rather, Peter is saying, "We religious Jews are saved in the same way as these pagan Gentiles are, namely, through the grace of the Lord Yeshua."
The word "grace" means: "free and unmerited favor shown to guilty sinners who deserve only judgement." Human merit plays no part in man's salvation. Grace and human effort are mutually exclusive. Peter reached his conclusion, and that apparently satisfied the multitude, for we read in verse 12:
And all the multitude kept silent, and they were listening to Barnabas and Paul as they were relating what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles. Acts 15:12 NASB
Peter's words had moved them all to silence. Peter stated facts: Paul and Barnabas confirmed the statement. God had accredited Paul and Barnabas and authenticated their Gospel by the signs and wonders which He granted them, in addition to their words. These signs and wonders were God's "Amen" to their message and ministry.
And after they had stopped speaking, James answered, saying, "Brethren, listen to me. Acts 15:13 NASB
This is James the half-brother of Yeshua (Matthew 13:15). He didn't believe in Yeshua until after the resurrection. James had become a very important man in the church at Jerusalem:
Simeon has related how God first concerned Himself about taking from among the Gentiles a people for His name. Acts 15:14 NASB
James refers to Peter's description of his evangelisation of Cornelius and his fellow-Gentiles. Everyone knew about this, and how through it, God had undoubtedly taken from among the Gentiles "a people for His name." In the light of all the facts (11:1-18), this was really not open to dispute.
The Greek word for Gentiles is ethne. The Greek word for people in this passage is laos. The Jews considered themselves the laos of God, and never among the ethne. For them, ethne and laos were contrasting words. So, it would be challenging for them to hear that God at first visited the Gentiles (ethne) to take out of them a people (laos). By using phrasing that closely echoes God's choosing of Israel, James heightens the radical nature of the new thing God has done (Ex 19:5; Deut 7:6).
"And with this the words of the Prophets agree, just as it is written, Acts 15:15 NASB
What is it that the Prophets agree with? "With this" refers back to what he just said in verse 14—the calling of the Gentiles. Notice that James uses the plural for Prophets indicating that the thing that he illustrates from Amos is something he could have illustrated from other places as well.
James judges this new work of God by the way any work said to be of God should be judged. He goes to the Scriptures! And he quotes from Amos:
'AFTER THESE THINGS I will return, AND I WILL REBUILD THE TABERNACLE OF DAVID WHICH HAS FALLEN, AND I WILL REBUILD ITS RUINS, AND I WILL RESTORE IT, 17 IN ORDER THAT THE REST OF MANKIND MAY SEEK THE LORD, AND ALL THE GENTILES WHO ARE CALLED BY MY NAME,' 18 SAYS THE LORD, WHO MAKES THESE THINGS KNOWN FROM OF OLD. Acts 15:16-18 NASB
What is the Tabernacle of David? Historically, the Tabernacle of David was the tent where the Ark of God was housed during the latter part of David's reign. The Ark of the Covenant was originally housed in the Tabernacle of Moses (also called the Tabernacle of the Congregation). In the year 1050 B.C., David brought the Ark to Jerusalem and placed it in a tent, the Tabernacle of David (2 Samuel 6, 1 Chronicles 13-16). The Ark stayed in David's Tabernacle for 40 years until it was moved into the Temple built and dedicated by David's son, Solomon, in 1010 B.C. (2 Chronicles 5-7).
When James actually quotes this, he's not talking about a tent. He's not talking about a tabernacle. It's not about any physical structure at all. The booth of David, the tent of David to James is Yeshua. It's the resurrected Yeshua. That's what's been rebuilt and restored, the Davidic dynasty, because Yeshua is the Davidic Messiah. So the booth of David, the tent of David, is actually David's household, his family, his dynasty, which converges, the outcome of that is the Messiah, Yeshua.
When the birth of Yeshua was announced to Mary, the angel said:
"He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David; 33 and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever; and His kingdom will have no end." Luke 1:32-33 NASB
Thus, the promise of the Tabernacle of David being rebuilt, when properly understood, is seen to refer neither to a continuous line of Jewish kings descended from David, nor to a reconstruction of the Jewish nation, but to the perpetual reign of Yeshua in the Church, His holy habitation.
The Tabernacle of David, pitched in "Zion," the city of David, became the dwelling place of Yahweh. I see the Tabernacle of David as a prophetic symbol of Yahweh's dwelling place. Notice what Peter writes:
you also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Yeshua the Christ. 6 For this is contained in Scripture: "BEHOLD I LAY IN ZION A CHOICE STONE, A PRECIOUS CORNER stone, AND HE WHO BELIEVES IN HIM SHALL NOT BE DISAPPOINTED." 1 Peter 2:5-6 NASB
Peter's citation from Isaiah establishes two very important facts: First, that Yahweh's eternal habitation was being built, not in the natural world, but in the spiritual world; and second, that the "Zion" of prophecy, which God has chosen as the place of His eternal abode, is the heavenly Zion, to which we "are come" (Heb. 12:22). These two facts help us in interpreting Acts 15:16. The Tabernacle that David built for the ark was in Zion, the city of David; and the name "Zion" designates a spiritual locality, the place of God's eternal dwelling, thus it would naturally follow that the expression "Tabernacle of David" has also a spiritual meaning.
The "Tabernacle of David," spoken of by Amos, is used as a prophetic symbol of that "habitation of God":
having been built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Yeshua Himself being the corner stone, 21 in whom the whole building, being fitted together is growing into a holy temple in the Lord; 22 in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit. Ephesians 2:20-22 NASB
God's chief purpose in saving the Gentiles is that He may use them as "living stones," in the building of that "spiritual house" which is His dwelling place.
This is James argument: The salvation of the Gentiles agrees with what Amos said. What Peter has done, taking the Gospel to the Gentiles, is the fulfillment of what Amos said. Amos said that the Tabernacle of David would be restored "in order that" the Gentiles may seek after God. The Gentiles were now being saved. So what does that tell you about the Tabernacle of David? It was at that time being restored. The Gentiles could not call on Yahweh until the remnant, Amos 5:3, was being brought in. The Gentiles could not be saved until the Tabernacle of David was restored. Since the Gentiles were being saved, the Tabernacle of David was being restored. This passage speaks of the restoration of Israel.
Keep in mind that the Jerusalem Conference was occupied—not with some future work of God, but with what He had at that very time begun to do. For His visitation of the Gentiles, beginning through Peter at the house of Cornelius and continuing through Paul and Barnabas in various places in Asia Minor, was the subject, and the only subject, so far as the record discloses, that was considered at that conference.
Who was the promise of Amos 9:11, "In that day I will raise up the fallen booth of David," made to? Amos was writing to Israel, the 10 Northern tribes. And yet James is saying that this prophecy is being fulfilled in the Church. I believe that the Bible teaches the essential continuity of Israel and the Church. The elect of all the ages are seen as one people—true Israel, with one Savior, one destiny.
James was using Scripture to support Peter's argument, that salvation for all people, Jew or Gentile, is by God's grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. The quote from Amos' and James' concluding comment support what Peter emphasized in verse 7, that the salvation of the Gentiles originated with God, not with man. It was not something that Peter or Paul and Barnabas dreamed up. God purposed to do it from eternity, and He revealed it through His Prophets centuries before:
"Therefore it is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles, Acts 15:19 NASB
I actually like the way the NIV translates this:
It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Acts 15:19 NIV
The Church too often makes it difficult for people who are turning to God—now that you are a Christian...you must: tithe, quit your job at Bush Gardens, get a hair cut, get baptized, and on and on it goes.
There is an emphasis in the Greek on "my." Literally, he says, "I judge that...". James knew how important his view would be to those who were most likely not to approve of abandoning the need for circumcision. There is an authority here that does not appear in the speech of Peter; and this authority was felt and bowed to by all the council. James appears to be chairing the meeting.
The word "trouble" is an interesting Greek word, it means: "to put an obstacle in their path." Troubling the Gentiles meant: "imposing the requirements of Jewish proselytes on them, namely, circumcision and observance of the Mosaic Law." Thus making it difficult for people who are turning to God.
The decision of the Jerusalem Council, then, was that the Gospel, for Jew or Gentile, was salvation as a gift of God's grace, through faith alone, faith in the person and work of Yeshua as the Messiah who bore one's sins and judgment so that they could be pronounced righteous in God's sight and have eternal life in the Kingdom of God. Those who taught otherwise did not have the approval of the church in Jerusalem. Paul and Barnabas were right, and those men who came to Antioch from Judea were wrong.
James, after having said we have freedom from the law, we don't have to be circumcised, either to become a member of the covenant company or to be saved, introduces a few things that these people should do when they are in the midst of people who believe some of those things:
but that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood. Acts 15:20 NASB
Write to who? "Them" and "they" are Gentile Christians. Why should Gentile believers observe these things?:
"For Moses from ancient generations has in every city those who preach him, since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath." Acts 15:21 NASB
These requirements would be necessary because there would always be in every city those who proclaimed Moses, and there would therefore always be Jewish Christians who, having been brought up to these principles, would studiously attend on such teaching. James is saying, "The reason that the Gentile believers should abstain from these four behaviors is that almost every city has adherents to the Jewish faith."
Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them to send to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas—Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brethren, Acts 15:22 NASB
Note the stress on who were involved. It was from "the apostles and the elders, with the whole church." They wanted Antioch to know that all were in agreement, and that the whole church of Jerusalem was involved and was with them on the question.
and they sent this letter by them, "The apostles and the brethren who are elders, to the brethren in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia who are from the Gentiles, greetings. Acts 15:23 NASB
In verse 20 James says, "we should write them" and here it says, "they sent this letter." So they write the letter and say, "Greeting"—this is an interesting word, it is only used one other place in the Bible, that being James 1:1, so it must have been a word that James used, and therefore, it is said that James probably wrote the letter, he penned it.
This is the first letter sent to the early church. This letter is telling Gentile Christians how they should view the Torah. The letter said:
"For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these essentials: Acts 15:28 NASB
The word "essentials" is only used here in the New Testament, it is the Greek word epanagkes, which means: "necessary." Please notice here that the essentials are not 613 laws, it's not even 10 commandments. Out of all these commandments James tells the Gentile believers which ones they are responsible for. What are the essentials?:
that you abstain from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication; if you keep yourselves free from such things, you will do well. Farewell." Acts 15:29 NASB
If the Gentiles could be saved as Gentiles, why are they even asking them to do these four things? Isn't that works salvation? Well, no, actually not ,because he says, "if you keep yourselves free from such things, you will... be saved." NO! "You will do well." It'll be good. You'll be okay. Everybody will get along. It doesn't say you'll be saved.
It is generally recognized that these four prohibitions come from Leviticus 17 and 18. Glenny writes, "Leviticus 17-18 in the Masoretic text contains five appearances of the phrase, 'the alien living among them,' or among you." Leviticus 17:8, 10, 12, 13, and 18:26:
'And any man from the house of Israel, or from the aliens who sojourn among them, who eats any blood, I will set My face against that person who eats blood and will cut him off from among his people. Leviticus 17:10 NASB
The appearances of this phrase are connected to four different prohibitions in these chapters for Gentiles living in Israel. So this is how Gentiles are to live among the people of God. So there are four things that are prohibited of the "alien living among you" in the book of Leviticus. And they happen to correspond in the same order to the four prohibitions of the apostolic letter.
The issue here was not a question of whether these things were necessary for salvation. It was whether they were necessary for fellowship in common. Refraining from these things would greatly reduce the cultural tensions which existed between Jews and Gentiles.
So James is telling the Gentile believers, "Though you are not bound under the Law of Moses, you are bound under the Law of Love." The Law of Love tells them, "Don't unnecessarily antagonize your Jewish neighbors, both in and out of the Church."
So, when they were sent away, they went down to Antioch; and having gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter. Acts 15:30 NASB
So Barnabas and Paul along with Judas and Silas head back to Antioch. When the men arrived from Jerusalem, they gathered the congregation to hear their words:
And when they had read it, they rejoiced because of its encouragement. Acts 15:31 NASB
This has to be a huge understatement. We don't have to be circumcised, we don't have to keep the 613 laws, we don't even have to keep the 10 commandments in order to be saved. They were rejoicing in the fact that salvation was by grace through faith, and they did not need to become Jews. If the counsel would have decided that Gentile believers had to be circumcised and keep the Law of Moses then Christianity would have died out in A.D. 70 when Jerusalem was destroyed. But they decided that the Law of Moses had nothing to do with Christianity. Too bad that most of churcheanity hasn't heard the great news of this Council that was held over two thousand years ago.