The controversy in the early church was addressed especially in letters to churches in Galatia and the church in Rome. In both cases the issue was over the same principle – the conflict over righteousness by faith and righteousness by works; of justification by Christ alone or by legalism; by the power of God or by human backbone and unbending stiff-necked religion. The principle of contention, then, was as it is today: “How is a person justified?” Millennia ago Job ask the same question, “How can a man be righteous before God?” Job 9:2. The principle remains the same, but the application of the principle changes because of varying circumstances and conditions.
The controversy came to a head in Paul’s day because he and Barnabas taught justification by faith in Christ alone to the Gentiles, who responded extraordinarily to the preaching of this gospel. The power of God was working mightily through Paul who received and presented the message of justification directly from heaven. The enemy of God and man was alarmed. He knew that by some means he had to bring the preaching of the gospel to an end or at least to bring it to a standstill. If he could not, then his movement would plummet and eventually collapse. So, he goaded some Pharisees to resist the gospel. These were professed believers, “Pharisees who believed” (Acts 15:5). These emissaries of Satan followed Paul from place to place tearing down what he had previously built up.
Their teaching was, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” Acts 15:1. This sentiment was expressed in the first Council of the Christian Church at Jerusalem. Those Pharisees made circumcision a salvation issue. But this was “a different gospel” a perversion of “the gospel of Christ.” Galatians 1:6-7. And it is evident that the doctrine of those Pharisees reached the church in Rome as well as the churches in Galatia. Those gospel perverters had some very strong Bible texts to support their false premise. We will consider two passages familiar to them. The first was Genesis 17:11-14. In its first instance circumcision was a token of Abraham’s unbelief in God’s promise. In the performance of this ceremony the testimony was given that the carnal nature – the flesh – must be “cut off,” not as a method of salvation, but as an act of faith in God’s promise that He will do for a person that which he can not do for themselves. Circumcision became a “seal of the righteousness of the faith which Abraham had while still uncircumcised.” Romans 4:11.
If a person refused to be circumcised, he was to be “cut off from his people” (Genesis 17:14). This was a capital offence. This was strong evidence for the Pharisees who were peddling a works righteousness program of justification. The second passage they based their theology on is found in Exodus 4:24-26. Moses on the way back to Egypt was struck down with which appeared to be a terminal illness. Zipporah, Moses wife, knew exactly what to do. She circumcised the second boy with a stone and thus saved Moses life (vs 25). Evidently, she was very tenderhearted and was painful for her to see the firstborn child circumcised. Consequentially, she influenced Moses convincing him to not circumcise their second son. But when she saw Moses nearly dead, she immediately performed the ceremony herself.
These two instances were proof texts that circumcision of the flesh was absolutely necessary for salvation. How could Paul doubt such proof texts as these? However, what the Pharisees did not understand was the fact that Jesus fulfilled the ceremonial circumcision by His death. Christ was “cut off” from life! Daniel 9:26. The term “cut off” here, in Daniel, is the same term used in the case of Zipporah and in that of Abraham regarding circumcision as found in Exodus 4:25 and Genesis 17:14.
The “Pharisees that believed” ignored the real meaning of circumcision which was, a sign of salvation – a sign of justification by faith and of the new birth. Outward circumcision was to be a pictogram of the heart for both men and women. The heart was to be circumcised as illustrated by its physical counterpart in the circumcision of the flesh. As presented in Deuteronomy 30:6 and 10:16, Paul cut through the fog of false doctrine and revealed the true significance of circumcision when writing to the Roman church by stating: “…Circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, not in the letter…” Romans 2:29.
And further, as Paul affirmed that to be circumcised, in its true meaning, is to be crucified with Christ as brought forth in his letter to the church in Colosse: “In Him you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ.” Colossians 2:11.
In that Jerusalem Council mentioned earlier and recorded in Acts 15, Peter came to the aid of Paul in the controversy over salvation. He did this by relating his experience of a dream sent by God to instruct him about uncircumcised Gentile believers (Acts 15:7-21). Gentiles as taught by Jews were unclean and so could not be associated with. But God disagreed with this and convinced Peter of this false doctrine.
However, Peter later while under pressure abandoned his belief at Antioch because of the strong influence of those Pharisees who professed belief in Christ, but were in reality “false brethren” who turned the gospel of Christ into a false gospel. Paul was at that meeting and rigorously and publicly rebuked Peter (see Galatians 2:14-16). Paul set forth the true gospel, the only gospel, of salvation when he spoke to Peter about justification by faith.
Paul stated in certain terms, you know “that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.” Galatians 2:16 (KJV). The following is a chiastic structure of this vital truth of the gospel as given by Paul:
A. a man is not justified by the works of the law,
B. but by the faith of Jesus Christ,
B/ even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith
A/ and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.
The controversy continues today. It is the same in principle, but the application has changed. The issue is still justification by the faith of Jesus, believed and made a part of the experience of the believer as the work of God for him, and by him as he believes in Christ alone for justification, This is opposed by legalists who resist this wonderful good news and in its place insist on their own merits in some fashion, using Bible proof texts, as did the “Pharisees who believed” in their works of circumcision as a means of salvation.
~ Jerry Finneman