Do Christians receive salvation through good works, faith, or both? Does our obedience guarantee us a place in the family of God? Are Christians truly free or are we bound to the law? The answers to these questions are foundational to our Christian faith. In fact, they were debated in antiquity when the early church began and they are still being debated heavily today. We need a Biblical understanding of these questions so that we live our lives based on the truth rather than a lie. We’ll be discussing the Apostolic Council as described in Acts 15, the message of the book of Galatians, the purpose of the Jewish law, and the significance of Christ’s death and resurrection. Some of these concepts might be new to you and others might be familiar. Don’t worry though, I’ll walk you through everything in detail.
Are Christians Saved by Faith or Good Works?
When the early church began, it consisted of primarily Jewish believers of Jesus. Christianity was not a new religion. Instead, it was a new way of following the God of Israel through the revelation of his Son, Jesus Christ. However, these new followers of Jesus needed a solid understanding of how Jesus transformed their previous way of living. Were they still required to keep the Mosaic law or was Jesus enough? Was Jesus simply meant to be an addition to their lives or was he to become their whole lives?
Some Jewish Christians firmly believed that the law was still necessary. In their minds, Christ was simply an addition to the Mosaic law. Some argued that Jews were still required to keep the law but the Gentiles who slowly became a part of the Messianic movement didn’t need to keep the law. Still, others believed that the Gentiles were not even true believers unless they kept the law. There was a lot of tension surrounding these ideas during the early days of the church.
Related: Why “Good” People Need the Gospel
The Jerusalem Council’s Decision
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.”Acts 15:5 ESV
Acts 15 and Galatians 2 explain the details of the Jerusalem, or Apostolic, Council. The leaders of the Church came together to discuss the place of the new Gentile believers in the Messianic community. Did they need to follow the Mosaic law in order to be included or was faith in Jesus enough?
Peter spoke up in the meeting and explained that God gave the Holy Spirit to the Gentiles just as he did for the Jews and therefore, the Gentiles are saved by the grace of God just as Jews are. Peter was able to speak this way because the Lord had previously explained everything to him in a vision and through an encounter with Cornelius, the first Gentile saved, in Acts 10.
James agreed and they decided not to put the requirements of the law on the Gentiles. Instead, they only asked them to “abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood” (Acts 15:20 ESV).
It was settled. The Gentiles did not need to practice the Mosaic law in order to be genuine members of the family of God.
The Galatian Issue: the preaching of a “new” gospel
We don’t know exactly how long after but eventually, a group of men from Jerusalem came and according to Paul, “bewitched” the Galatians (Galatians 3:1 ESV). Rather than continuing to follow Paul’s gospel, they were turning to this “new” gospel presented by these agitators. What was the “new” gospel? Well, the agitators were requiring the Galatians to keep the Mosaic law in order to be “truly” saved.
Paul was angry. The issue was already settled at the Jerusalem Council and even the Jewish leaders knew that the Gentiles were not required to keep the law. So why were these agitators still preaching something new?
Yet, the issue continues today. It has been settled in scripture and still many preach a “Jesus Plus” gospel. So are good works necessary for salvation? And why is the requirement to do good works for salvation actually offensive to the true gospel of Jesus Christ?
Justification is by Faith and Not the Works of the Law
We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.Galatians 2:15-16 ESV
Paul makes it pretty clear here. No one can be justified, or saved, by the works of the law. Instead, one is justified by putting their faith in Jesus Christ who perfectly and completely kept the law in order to free us from its power. We are saved when we recognize that we cannot please God on our own and we need Jesus to make us right with God.
Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you.Galatians 5:2 ESV
If we decide that salvation is “Jesus Plus,” then there’s no point in following Jesus. Salvation is not Jesus plus circumcision, Jesus plus good works, Jesus plus baptism, or anything else. Timothy George puts it well:
“To believe in Jesus Christ and water, Jesus Christ and bread and wine, Jesus Christ and church membership, Jesus Christ and anything else is to profane the grace of God and render useless the death of Christ.”(Timothy George, Galatians: the Christian Standard Commentary)
If salvation comes through faith, then what is the purpose of the law?
Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made, and it was put in place through angels by an intermediary. Now an intermediary implies more than one, but God is one.Galatians 3:19-20 ESV
The law was a temporary measure to help keep God’s people in line until the promised Messiah came. The law isn’t a bad thing. It teaches us about what God is like. However, the law couldn’t make anyone right with God.
Jesus came to abolish sin’s power over humanity and through his death and resurrection, make them right with God and empower them to please God. After Jesus’ resurrection, the Spirit came and dwelled in the hearts of men and women. Rather than attempting to keep the law and fail, the Spirit would guide God’s children into righteousness. Instead of making continuous sacrifices for sin, Jesus’ once and for all sacrifice atones for the sins of all who trust in him. Simply put, the law could do a lot of things but it couldn’t give people the Spirit. It couldn’t change people’s hearts. It couldn’t make people want to obey God.
The law was never meant to save. Salvation was always through faith even in the Old Testament.
And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness.Genesis 15:6 ESV
God graciously chose Abraham to become the father of many nations. God declared Abraham righteous because of his faith. There was no law around at this point. It was grace and grace alone. How was Israel saved? They were saved because of their relationship to Abraham. The law is not what got them in God’s family, however disobedience to the law could keep them out.
The inheritance that God promised to Abraham and his descendants ultimately came through Christ who is the real offspring of Abraham (See Galatians 3:15-18). Everyone who is in Christ is automatically a spiritual descendant of Abraham. Therefore, the inheritance that Christ received as the genuine offspring of Abraham is ours as well if we are in Christ.
We can’t add good works to Christ’s sacrifice
The truth is, we can either choose to follow the law or we can choose to follow Christ. If we want to follow even just a part of the law for our justification, we are required to keep the whole law perfectly (Galatians 5:3). When was the last time you lied? Or gossipped? Lusted?
According to the law, unless you had a sacrifice, you would die for such sins. Some sins didn’t even get the luxury of atonement — the sinner would die on the spot.
But, Christ has paid for our atonement once and for all and empowered us to keep his commandments through the Spirit. Following Christ is a much easier way of obeying God than following the law.
Personally, I’d rather follow Christ.
How do we keep ourselves from sin without adding laws to follow?
But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.Galatians 5:16 ESV
And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.Ezekiel 36:26-27 ESV
Through Jesus, God fulfilled the promise that was prophesied of old. God would give his people a new heart and fill them with his Spirit. The Spirit would empower them to obey God. Living a righteous life is still essential. But the how is different. We walk in righteousness through Christ and the Holy Spirit within us.
When we sin (and we will), we don’t have to choose between sacrificing an innocent animal or dying. Instead, we have an advocate in Christ. His death already atoned for our sins. We no longer have to try to please God in the flesh and fail. Instead, we are empowered by the Spirit to please God.
Does this mean that we should ignore the law?
Absolutely not! Remember, the law teaches us about what God is like. The law is holy and good — people are sinful. The law is in scripture for a reason.
Christ gave us a new law that wasn’t really so new. He commanded us to love the Lord with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength and to love our neighbor as ourselves (Luke 10:27). He simply summed up the entire Old Testament law in a sentence. God cares about how we relate with him and how we relate with each other. Reading and studying scripture is important because it helps us as we put this kind of love into practice. The Spirit also works with scripture to teach us God’s commandments.
Yes, we are required to keep God’s commandments but through the Spirit not the flesh. That’s the difference.
Now, I’m not going to get into this too much but there were also laws designed to keep some people in God’s family and to keep others out. These laws had to do with Jewish Exclusivism: God designed certain laws to keep his people separate from the pagan nations surrounding them. However, Christ broke down those barriers in his death and now there is no need for separation between the two groups (Ephesians 2:14). Therefore, the laws that kept Gentiles out (like circumcision) are no longer necessary.
What does this mean for us today?
Few of us today are struggling with whether or not to keep the Jewish laws for salvation. However, many are struggling with something similar. There is absolutely nothing we can do to earn God’s salvation. There is no requirement for salvation except faith in the Messiah. That’s it.
Additionally, the gospel is not “Jesus Plus.” Back then, they wanted to make the gospel Jesus plus circumcision. Today, we try to make it Jesus plus baptism, or Jesus plus long hair, Jesus plus the Sabbath, Jesus plus church rules, and the list goes on. None of these things are bad but none of them can save. Jesus didn’t die so that we can add our own laws to his gospel. He died to set us free to obey God as God intended.
Legalism is adding burdens to yourself or others that God did not require you to carry. It’s okay if you only want to wear skirts and avoid makeup. And for any guys reading this, it’s okay if you only want to wear suits to church on Sunday. It’s okay if you don’t want to wear yoga pants. It’s totally cool if you want to avoid eating certain foods. However, doing this will not save you or make you right with God. God has not required this from his people. We are made right with God through Christ.
The two-fold danger of legalism
The first danger is that an individual practicing legalism may think that they are genuinely saved because of all the good works they practice. This person is unfortunately lost no matter how much good they do. Rather than being taught that faith in the Messiah leads to salvation, they believe that it is their obedience. So, unfortunately this person (unless he or she truly comes to Christ) will die and inherit eternal damnation even though they are a morally good person.
The second danger is that a saved believer practicing legalism may find themselves so caught up in their own laws and end up not following God’s commandments. Lust is sinful in God’s eyes but this person will make sure that they avoid “immodest” clothing while still entertaining a lustful spirit. Or, they will avoid eating certain foods but then will slander their brother or sister. They’ll feel more guilt about wearing something they deem immodest or eating something they consider wrong to eat, rather than being convicted about their lust or slander. Rather than confessing their actual sin, they will continue thinking that God is pleased with them because they dress or eat “right,” when in fact they are living a life of disobedience to God.
Saved by grace through faith in Christ alone
This matters. We are saved by grace through faith alone and we are required to follow the lead of the Spirit and avoid the things of the flesh. We make mistakes but we can appeal to Christ who has already atoned for our sin and trust the Spirit to help us walk on the right path again.
Christianity is meant to be a religion of freedom. We are free from sin and death in order to serve Christ. Good works cannot save us. The legalism we add to keep ourselves in line cannot save us either. We are saved through Christ and we are sanctified as we follow the lead of the Holy Spirit.