Peter said, “We believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”
When it comes to the topic of religion, our culture frequently vacillates between two extremes. On one extreme, we are relativists. As comedian George Carlin once said, “Religion is like a pair of shoes… Find one that fits for you, but don’t make me wear your shoes.”
On the other extreme, we are legalists. As the men from Judea insisted, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses [i.e., obey the letter of the law], you cannot be saved.”
Where does the gospel fit on this spectrum?
Here, in Acts 15, the Jerusalem Council had to decide whether the new Gentile converts needed to be circumcised in order to receive the full blessings of Christ. Paul and Barnabas didn’t think they did. They argued that God had already given the Holy Spirit to the Gentiles apart from circumcision. Why, they asked, should man place a requirement on them when God had not?
The Council agreed. But when they wrote to the new converts, they added some requirements — “that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality.” How were these not legalistic add-ons?
Peter and Paul tried to contextualize the gospel as much as possible. Elsewhere Paul writes, “I have become all things to all people that by all means I might save some. I do all things for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.”
On the one hand, they avoided legalism — here, the requirement of circumcision. On the other hand, there is a point that our contextualization becomes permissive and leads to relativism. Here, the prohibitions they added were activities traditionally associated with idol worship. They were about the heart of the gospel, not mere marks of behavioral obedience.
Lord, the love of Christ compels us because he died for us that we may no longer live for ourselves, but for him who died and was raised again. Yet we confess that we often tend toward relativism or legalism. We give you thanks, however, for giving us the ministry of reconciliation. Give us hearts full of courage and love. Make us “Greeks to the Greeks,” contextualizing the word in the world. Amen.