As we continue to move toward the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant reformation, we will often find ourselves thinking about the writings of Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin. These men and their followers had a tremendous impact on the church as they recovered many a biblical doctrine that had been seemingly lost over the previous centuries. Of course, chief among the most important of these doctrines is the doctrine of salvation by Grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.
One of the key theological differences between Protestants and Roman Catholics is the understanding of that repeated word, “alone.” Protestants believe that, biblically, God has revealed that we are saved by God’s grace, not by our own ability or worth. We are saved through faith, not through the performance of any sort of religious ritual or sacramental ceremony. And we believe that we are saved through the perfectly finished work of Jesus Christ alone, without any merit added by ourselves or the goodness of others from the past. We are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.
Interestingly, a look at the first century church and a major early controversy brings to light at least some of these principles. Not long after the apostle Peter took the gospel to the home of a gentile, a Roman centurion named Cornelius, some of the Jews in the early church began to demand some extra requirements of gentiles. The Jewish Christians had a hard time believing that a gentile, a person who had never submitted to the laws of Moses in any form, could simply be allowed into the church by God’s’ grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Instead the Jews believed that the gentiles must be circumcised, that is given the sign of God’s covenant with Abraham, and they also should be required to obey the dietary laws that the Jews lived under for centuries. Eventually, this controversy made its way to a counsel of apostolic church leaders. The decision of these men on this doctrine would shape the course of the church for all the future.
Now, at that time, the apostles could not turn to Scripture to get a clear command as to what to do. Why? These men were the ones God was inspiring to write the Scripture. So, the Jerusalem counsel was in a unique position to determine biblical doctrine in a way that future church counsels would not be. What these men would say would become inspired Scripture.
Take note of the presence of grace alone and faith alone in Christ alone in the words that Peter used as he presented his case before the counsel.
Acts 15:5-11 – 5 But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.”
6 The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter. 7 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. 8 And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, 9 and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. 10 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? 11 But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”
Peter’s words are a great example of the principle of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. In verse 11, Peter points out that the gentiles would be saved by God’s grace. In verse 10, he opposed the addition of any sort of legal work or even legal prohibition relating to salvation. In verse 9, Peter pointed out that this gracious salvation came to the gentiles through faith.
If you read the rest of the chapter, you will see that the church, led by the Spirit of God and in keeping with the revelation of Old Testament Scripture, agreed with Peter’s argument. They even wrote a letter to the churches that had been confused by the people who tried to apply extra requirements for salvation beyond faith alone in Christ alone.
Now, I will admit that the early church did impose a set of four requirements for the gentiles. But those four things included important revelation for the gentiles as to how to respond to the worship of idols. New Christians in idol-worshipping communities needed to have help to know if they should continue to go to pagan temples or not.
Acts 15:28-29 – 28 For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: 29 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.”
Now, if you recognize that all 4 of those things were a part of the worship of idols, a sexually immoral, blood-drinking, violent mess, you should not be surprised that the apostles felt the need to communicate this to the gentile converts. Christians are supposed to be changed by God to obey his commands. But even this was not placed on the level of a salvation doctrine. These are not things that they said would bring a Christian into salvation, but they were things that, when a Christian avoids them, he does well.
The early church did not add any works to salvation. The apostles understood that, for any person, Jew or gentile, to be saved is a gift of God’s grace alone. That salvation comes to all who are saved through faith alone. The faith that saves is in Jesus Christ alone, his death and resurrection. And the requirements given are simply the requirements that those who know Jesus turn from worldliness and the worship of idols to trust and obey the Lord who has saved them.
May we love the doctrines of the reformation, because they are the doctrines of the New Testament. May we see that salvation is a gift of grace alone, and it has nothing to do with us performing actions of any sort. Salvation comes through faith alone, and it has nothing to do with me earning it by a ritual of any sort. Salvation comes through the finished work of Christ alone, as Jesus is the only sacrifice for our sins and his righteousness must be given to us as a gift if we are to have God’s righteousness.