Summary: In three sermons, we will look at the man-made gospel of the law, the man-made gospel of the heart, and the God-made gospel of the cross. First, the gospel of the law.
7/7/13 The Gospel of Man, I
Acts 15:1-5 D. Marion Clark
For the next two Sundays, we are going to examine two alternative gospels to the gospel. They are two sides of the coin that can be labeled the gospel of man. They are quite popular, so popular that their adherents exceed those of the gospel of Christ. And so we would do well to understand their popularity if only to better understand our neighbors who are adherents. And we would do well to examine ourselves to discern how much of the gospel of man might be mixed into the gospel of Christ.
The third week, we will devote to the gospel of Christ which puts any alternative in right perspective. To put it succinctly, we will look at the man-made gospel of the law, the man-made gospel of the heart, and the God-made gospel of the cross. First, the gospel of the law.
But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”… 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.”
Weren’t these the same guys who hounded Jesus? How did they get into the church? Evidently they were converted. The Spirit can change any heart. Paul had been a Pharisee. But these men don’t seem to have changed. They argue the same things that they did with Jesus. Well, not exactly. Before, they did not regard Jesus to be the Messiah. Now they do. Presumably they have repented of their failure to recognize him and even to persecute him. They have taken the risky step of publicly acknowledging him as Lord. And they are taking discipleship with the same zeal as they did before confessing him as the Messiah – they are ardently keeping the law as they know the Messiah would expect of his followers.
Peter and the other apostles may not have been Pharisees, but they had a similar position. After Jesus’ resurrection, while he is still meeting with them in his post-resurrection appearances, they think that he came only for the Jewish people. That is why they ask him in Acts 1:6, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” Even at Pentecost, and they have been baptized with the Holy Spirit, Peter and the others preach to the “men of Israel” (Acts 2:22). As Peter concludes his sermon, “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” It would take a vision and the experience of seeing Gentiles be baptized with the Holy Spirit before Peter and the early church leaders would awaken to the idea that even to “the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:18).
So Gentiles are included in the Messiah’s work? That took church leaders into unknown territory. The only logical way for many of them to grasp such a premise is that Gentiles need to come under the covenant that had been given to Israel. Then, in that context, they could be included in the Messiah’s redemption. That is what circumcision is about. It is the sign of inclusion in the covenant, which involves keeping the laws of that covenant.
It is logical thinking. This matter of insisting that Gentiles be like Jews was not a mere prejudice viewpoint. It was a theological issue and a reasonable one. Jesus himself told the Samaritan woman that “salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22). It was with the Jews that God had made a covenant and with no one else. Why then suppose that Gentiles whom Paul describes in Ephesians 2:12 as “separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise,” why suppose that they could slip into God’s kingdom by the back door?
With this mindset, the Pharisees and likely other church leaders, approached the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ. Yes, the Messiah has come; yes, he has won our salvation, i.e., the salvation of his covenant people who turn to him. To include Gentiles is a stretch, but if they first identify with the same covenant, even they may participate in this salvation. It would take another Pharisee (Saul of Tarsus) struck down by a vision of the risen Messiah, raised up and given a direct calling to evangelize Gentiles to break free of this logical man-made gospel. For as much as the Pharisees might protest, their version of the gospel was man-made, the gospel of law-keeping.
The Gospel of Man: Law-Keeping
Law-keeping, the basis of most religions outside the gospel of Christ, holds to the premise that acceptance from God comes with conditions. We must in some way earn that acceptance or prove our worthiness. It is a time-honored position, and one that is based on an admirable premise, namely, that God, or the gods, is due honor. That he is Creator is enough cause to pay him due respect. That he is also all-powerful and can and does exact vengeance is further reason to offer up to him whatever he wants offered – sacrifices, rituals, obedience.