Acts 15:1 – “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.”
The issue that brought about the Acts 15 council was how to respond to a false teaching. Specifically, a party of the Jews (comparable to a modern denomination) was stirring up controversy by insisting new converts must be circumcised – to be saved.
“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.” (Acts 15:1)
Peter dispels this false teaching in verse 11.
“But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” (Acts 15:11)
When Paul spoke of the false salvation-by-circumcision teaching to the Galatians, he described it as a different gospel, a distortion and preaching contrary to the gospel preached by Paul.
“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel–not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed. For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.” (Galatians 1:6-10)
“Yet because of false brothers secretly brought in–who slipped in to spy out our freedom that we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might bring us into slavery— to them we did not yield in submission even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you.” (Galatians 2:4-5)
Like Peter, Paul also refuted the false teaching that law-keeping could bring about justification.
“We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.” (Galatians 2:15-16)
Let’s review aspects of the false teaching:
- The false teaching said that circumcision was necessary to be saved.
- The false teaching was secretly brought in by false brothers.
- Paul called this false teaching a distortion of the gospel of Christ. It was contrary to what the apostles were teaching.
- The false teaching brought people into slavery.
- The false teachers were to be accursed.
- Anyone accepting the false teaching would be seeking the approval of man over God.
By contrast, the true gospel says salvation is by grace and through faith (Ephesians 2:8-9). With this as an anchor, we need to understand what is meant here when the word circumcision is used.