Summary: To add anything whether it is baptism or good works or whatever it may be as a requirement for salvation is to diminish grace.
“Is It Grace Plus Works?”
Paul and Barnabas had just returned from their first missionary journey (Acts 13:4-14:28). While they were sharing about their experiences in Antioch we are told, “And certain men came down from Judea and taught the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” (v. 1) The church’s mission to the Gentiles was gathering momen-tum. The trickle of Gentile conversions had become a flood. The problem now became how these Gentile converts were to become a part of what had been a predominantly Jewish body. The message Paul and Barnabas had been preached was simple: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.” They believed salvation was by grace alone through faith alone. Gentile converts were being welcomed into the fellowship by baptism without circumcision. They were becoming Christians without first having to become Jews.
The specific issue of circumcision has long since passed away as a concern to us; but the principle behind it is very, very present with us today. The enemy has simply changed the issues. Substitute baptism, or separation issues, or speaking in tongues, or the necessity of good works for circumcision and you bring the problem right up to date. They said, “unless you are circumcised…. you cannot be saved.” But what is the problem and why was it so dangerous? They were attempting to mix law and grace. To add anything whether it is baptism or good works or whatever it may be as a requirement for salvation is to diminish grace.
Paul puts it very clearly in his letter to the church at Galatia (3:1-3). “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. (2) I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard? (3) Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh? (Galatians 3:1-3 -NIV)
We can just imagine how Satan wanted to take advantage of this situation. First, he wanted the false doctrine of works righteousness to succeed. But even if it didn’t, Satan wanted a costly, bitter doctrinal war to complete split and sour the church. This may be the greatest threat to the work of the gospel seen in the Book of Acts! The problems that confronted the church at Antioch seem easier to understand if we keep several things in mind. First, all of these men who came down from Jerusalem were evidently sincere. I don’t know that they came down trying to make trouble; they were deeply committed to their conviction that unless a Gentile first became a Jew by circumcision then, he had no right to call himself a Christian.
Secondly, no doubt these men had Scriptures to back up what they believed. (The Pharisees who believed might quote in defense of their position are Exodus 12:48-49 and Isaiah 56:6. These passages might be quoted to say that the covenant the Gentiles were invited to join was a covenant of circumcision.) Their position even seemed to be supported by the church at Jerusalem.