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Treasure Digest: Question and Answer: Doesn't Acts 15 Do Away With the Law?

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Question and Answer: Doesn't Acts 15 Do Away With the Law?

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Acts 15 discusses a ministerial conference in Jerusalem. The first verse clearly spells out the issue at the heart of the controversy. Some Christians of Jewish descent troubled non-Jewish Christians with the assertion, "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved." There are actually two parts to the assertion: the claim that God required circumcision for all male Christians, and the implication that practicing circumcision would earn salvation.

Of course, this would mean adult circumcision, which God required of Israel only once (Joshua 5:1-3 Joshua 5:1-3 [1] And it came to pass, when all the kings of the Amorites, which were on the side of Jordan westward, and all the kings of the Canaanites, which were by the sea, heard that the LORD had dried up the waters of Jordan from before the children of Israel, until we were passed over, that their heart melted, neither was there spirit in them any more, because of the children of Israel. [2] At that time the LORD said to Joshua, Make you sharp knives, and circumcise again the children of Israel the second time. [3] And Joshua made him sharp knives, and circumcised the children of Israel at the hill of the foreskins.
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). Acts 15:10 Acts 15:10Now therefore why tempt you God, to put a yoke on the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?
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acknowledges how difficult this would be.

After convening with members and elders, the leaders of the Church at Jerusalem issued a formal statement, showing the errors in this reasoning (verses 23-29). Because some continued to debate whether God required circumcision for many years, the New Testament often repeats the indisputable fact that physical deeds can never earn salvation. Circumcision was the identifying mark of one who was subject to the covenant that God made with Abraham (Genesis 17:1-14 Genesis 17:1-14 [1] And when Abram was ninety years old and nine, the LORD appeared to Abram, and said to him, I am the Almighty God; walk before me, and be you perfect. [2] And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will multiply you exceedingly. [3] And Abram fell on his face: and God talked with him, saying, [4] As for me, behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be a father of many nations. [5] Neither shall your name any more be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for a father of many nations have I made you. [6] And I will make you exceeding fruitful, and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come out of you. [7] And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your seed after you in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God to you, and to your seed after you. [8] And I will give to you, and to your seed after you, the land wherein you are a stranger, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God. [9] And God said to Abraham, You shall keep my covenant therefore, you, and your seed after you in their generations. [10] This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your seed after you; Every man child among you shall be circumcised. [11] And you shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of the covenant between me and you. [12] And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every man child in your generations, he that is born in the house, or bought with money of any stranger, which is not of your seed. [13] He that is born in your house, and he that is bought with your money, must needs be circumcised: and my covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. [14] And the uncircumcised man child whose flesh of his foreskin is not circumcised, that soul shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.
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). The Jews viewed it as a formal and binding requirement on all the people of God. Followed for many generations, the Jews viewed circumcision as a virtual badge of godly citizenship; and therefore, it was difficult for them to consider it no longer essential.

Paul added clarity later by explaining that it was indeed essential, but that "circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, and not in the letter" (Romans 2:29 Romans 2:29But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God.
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). He was referring, of course, to the cutting off of human nature and the conversion of the mind. God actually revealed this fuller spiritual understanding of the circumcision covenant through the prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 4:4 Jeremiah 4:4Circumcise yourselves to the LORD, and take away the foreskins of your heart, you men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem: lest my fury come forth like fire, and burn that none can quench it, because of the evil of your doings.
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), but the unconverted Israelites missed its meaning.

Modern readers of Acts 15 often overlook the background or purpose of the conference in Jerusalem, perhaps because the question of circumcision doesn't concern most people today. However, some people today attempt to read an antilaw message into verses 24-29. But the ministry did not convene a conference at Jerusalem to discuss the law.

A little common sense shows the fallacy of any attempt to force the idea that these verses end the law of God. If anyone says that verses 24-29, especially verses 28-29, show that the early Church didn't believe God binds the Christian to any laws other than those stated, he must also accept the logical extension—the early Church taught that God permits swearing, idolatry, dishonoring of parents, murder, adultery, stealing and lying! Of course, that is absurd, but it illustrates the point. The Jerusalem Church leaders were not abrogating these laws, and neither did they invalidate the Sabbath law (the only one of the Ten Commandments objected to by modern Christians).

So, the Church leaders stated that God did not require male Christians to undergo circumcision for salvation. The issues specifically noted in verses 28-29 related to problems common to the gentile population from which God was calling people to Christianity. The ministry pointedly reminded them of the need to withdraw from those unacceptable practices—not that such change would earn them salvation. God requires obedience of Christians, but it earns nothing. Salvation is a gift.

The Jerusalem Church leaders were not abrogating any of the Scriptures. Our booklet, The Ten Commandments, explains in clear language that the Ten Commandments are applicable and necessary in everyday Christian living. In addition, a follower of Jesus is to study all the Scriptures, as He clearly stated, "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God" (Matthew 4:4 Matthew 4:4But he answered and said, It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.
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).