We shouldn’t be surprised that we’ve spent a lot of time talking about the issue of baptism and church membership at Richmond’s First Baptist Church. Whole books of the New Testament were written to persuade people that Gentiles as well as Jews could be Christian, that keeping the Law of Moses was not essential to salvation, and that you didn’t have to be circumcised to join the church. This conversation is no different. In fact, take another look at this passage from Acts 15, where the church is wrestling with the question of whether Gentiles who wish to join the church must be circumcised. Substitute “Deacons” for the apostles and elders, “Christians from other denominations” for Gentiles, and “believer’s baptism by immersion” for circumcision, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what our deacons have been dealing with for the past year or so.
The Council at Jerusalem
1Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” 2This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question. 3The church sent them on their way, and as they traveled through Phoenicia and Samaria, they told how the Gentiles had been converted. This news made all the brothers very glad. 4When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders, to whom they reported everything God had done through them.
5Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses.”
6The apostles and elders met to consider this question. 7After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. 8God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. 9He made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. 10Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear? 11No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”
12The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the miraculous signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them. 13When they finished, James spoke up: “Brothers, listen to me. 14Simon has described to us how God at first showed his concern by taking from the Gentiles a people for himself. 15The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written:
16” ‘After this I will return
and rebuild David’s fallen tent.
Its ruins I will rebuild,
and I will restore it,
17that the remnant of men may seek the Lord,
and all the Gentiles who bear my name,
says the Lord, who does these things’
18that have been known for ages.
19“It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. 20Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. 21For Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath” (NIV).
It’s interesting to compare Paul’s version of this account in Galatians 2:1-10 with the version Luke has given us here in Acts 15. For Paul, who had been preaching the Gospel to the Gentiles, and who had seen for himself what wonderful Christians they could become (with Titus as “Exhibit A”), the idea of asking them to be circumcised in accordance with the law of Moses was hugely offensive. In Romans 2:29 he asserts that now that Christ has come the only kind of circumcision that matters is “circumcision of the heart.”
I wonder what Peter, Paul, and James would say to us on this issue. Would they require Christians from other denominations to get into the baptistry? Or would they say, as Peter did, “No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are” (Acts 15:11).