It Seemed Good To The Spirit

Whenever God is at work, there will often be people who attempt to put their mark on the work. They will endeavor to either add to, or take away from, the gospel. Often times, it is not an intentional attempt to distort the gospel; rather, it is borne out of personal, cultural or traditional influences. A group of men from Judea were deriding the Holy Spirit’s saving work among the Gentiles in Antioch (Acts 15). They believed that one could not be saved apart from the requirements of the law of Moses. Though they themselves had received salvation by believing in Jesus, they also believed that the laws they had followed since birth were a part of their salvation. They were mixing their personal religious experiences with salvation through Christ, and teaching a distorted gospel. They were saying that a Gentile had to first become a Jew in order to become a Christian. In essence they were saying that simply trusting in Jesus Christ wasn’t sufficient; they also had to obey Moses.

Peter himself had learned that salvation is not decided by whether one eats meat or doesn’t eat meat, or whether one eats pork or doesn’t eat pork. Salvation is not dependent upon whether we gather to worship on Sunday, or the Sabbath, or another day. It is not the result of keeping the Law, going through a ritual, or joining a church. We are all sinners before God, for whom Christ died on the cross. He was buried and rose again. He paid the price and extends His salvation to us by His grace which we receive through faith. There is one need, and there is but one gospel – with nothing to be added to, or subtracted from, it.

The church can still be guilty of trying to add to it today, particularly when we begin to elevate our traditions (whether old or new) to having equal importance to the gospel – i.e. what we wear when we gather to worship, our style of musical worship, the liturgical order of our worship gathering, and so forth. Allow me to use a missional example. For decades, the modern missionary movement from the western church exported a gospel heavily influenced by our western culture. We taught new believers that worship involved meeting in rectangular church buildings, sitting on uncomfortable benches, listening to a preacher that was flanked by notice boards that showed the hymns to be sung on one side, and last week’s offering and attendance on the other side. And we built that rectangular building in the midst of villages surrounded by round mud huts, singing songs that were as foreign to the heart cries of the culture as our English language was. But we were convinced that all of that was a part of being a Christian church. We were teaching people from other cultures how to become a westerner in order to be a Christian. Gratefully, the Spirit of God awakened the realization that we must strip away our culture and traditions from the preaching and practice of the gospel as we are making disciples. Just as we have been freed from the Law of Moses, we must be freed from our cultural customs and traditions. 

But also, whenever God is at work, there will be those who attempt to turn our focus away from the gospel and toward a myriad of other issues. Some will be as trivial as the color of the carpet in the church or the type of coffee we serve. Others will seek to turn our attention from the gospel to lesser doctrinal issues, such as the ongoing Calvinist-Arminian debate, or political issues – either inside or outside of the church – which cause us to shout at one another across the aisle either literally or figuratively.

The council in Jerusalem was seeking God to resolve an essential doctrinal issue as the gospel began to spread into the Gentile world, as well as an important fellowship issue. At the conclusion of their deliberation, James stood up to summarize their understanding of what they believed seemed good to the Spirit to have the church do. He was speaking to the Gentile and Jewish believers, exhorting them to live out their lives in a way that signified their belief in Christ – and Him alone for their salvation.

Gentile culture was characterized by idolatry and immorality – not unlike our world today. The early church leaders were admonishing the Gentile believers to walk in a manner worthy of the gospel, just as Paul himself later wrote: “Live as citizens of heaven, conducting yourselves in a manner worthy of the Good News about Christ” (Philippians 1:27). That meant that they had to walk in the righteousness of Christ and abstain from any practice of idolatry or immorality  -- or even the appearance of it. Thus, they should not even eat any food that had been presented to idols.

To the Jewish believers the council was saying: “God has not placed the burden of the Law upon the Gentiles – and you, as Jews, have no need to do so either.” Jesus’ blood had been shed for Jew and Gentile alike. One did not need to become like the other to partake in the grace of God. Rather, each needed to receive the gift of God by faith.

Further, just as the Jewish and Gentile believers were to walk in a manner worthy of the gospel, they were to walk in a manner that promoted unity within the body. The new church was a mixture of Jewish-background believers and Gentile-background believers. The church did a great deal of eating together and practicing hospitality. The church leaders were calling upon the Gentile believers to make dietary concessions – to  abstain from eating blood, as well as meat from animals that died by strangulation. Those concessions were for the purpose of promoting unity within the body, and presenting a united witness to a lost world.

Yes, we must continue to seek the Spirit and the Scriptures to make sure that we are not adding anything to, or taking anything away from, the gospel. We must come to the same place as those elders and apostles that “it seem{s} good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay no greater burden on you than” this. At the same time, we would do well to learn that problems and differences of opinion will still arise within the church. Those differences can either be a point of dissension and division, or an opportunity for us to grow together in Christ in a spiritually healthy way. How many hurtful fights and church splits could be avoided if we took time to listen to the Spirit to hear what seems good and right to Him?

Jesus told us that the world would know that we are His disciples by the love we have for one another (John 13:35). God has opened a wide and effective door of ministry (1 Corinthians 16:9) for us to carry the gospel of His grace to a world that needs to know Him. But there are forces at work in the church even today that want to close that door. They emphasize those things that would divide us and divert us. Let us learn from the early church in Jerusalem to listen only to God’s Word and His Spirit that we might together continue to walk through that wide and effective door according to what is good and right to the Holy Spirit.

Scripture reference: Acts 15:1-29

Excerpt from Until He Returns