When we talk about “the gospel in church history,” it is necessary to start at the beginning of church history—in those initial decades recorded for us in the book of Acts. Significantly, the essence of the gospel was the central issue at the first major council in church history.
The Jerusalem Council met around AD 49 or 50, nearly twenty years after the church was established on the Day of Pentecost, and 275 years before the next major church council—the Council of Nicaea (which convened in 325). The Jerusalem Council, which is recorded in Acts 15, assembled to answer one primary question: “What is the essence of the gospel?” But to fully understand what was at stake, we need to begin with Paul’s first missionary journey, found in Acts 13–14.
The Proclamation of the True Gospel (Acts 13–14)
In the first few years of church history, immediately following the day of Pentecost (Acts 2), the church was composed entirely of Jewish Christians. It wasn’t until the conversion of the Samaritans (in Acts 8) and Cornelius (in Acts 10) that non-Jews began to be incorporated into the body of Christ. After highlighting Cornelius’s conversion, Luke detailed the spread of the gospel into Gentile lands (in Acts 11:19–24), culminating in the formation of a predominantly Gentile church in Syrian Antioch.
The inclusion of Gentiles into the church represented a major paradigm shift for Jewish Christians. For the previous 1500 years of Israel’s history, since the time of Moses, God had been specifically working through the nation of Israel. But now, in the church, Gentiles were being saved without having to first become Jewish proselytes. Of course, God had prepared the apostles for this by saving Cornelius while Peter was present.
So when the apostles heard about Gentile converts in Antioch, the third largest city in the Roman empire at the time, they rejoiced and sent Barnabas to pastor the believers there. After about a year of ministry, Barnabas realized that he could use some help. So, according to Acts 11:25, he went to Tarsus, found Paul, and brought him back to Antioch. Together, then, Paul and Barnabas co-pastored the church in Antioch.
Around the year AD 47, Paul and Barnabas embarked on an evangelistic mission to several Gentile cities in Southern Galatia (part of modern-day Turkey). This would be their first missionary journey. They travelled first to Cyprus, then to Perga, and then to Psidian Antioch. It was here, in Psidian Antioch, that they entered the synagogue and Paul preached a mighty gospel message to the Jews who were there.
The content of that sermon is recorded in Acts 13:16–41, and it centered on the fact that Jesus is the Messiah whom God raised from the dead so that sinners might be saved through Him. In his emphasis on the gospel of grace, Paul made a critical statement in verses 38–39—one that must have shocked his Jewish audience. Paul said this:
Therefore let it be known to you, brethren, that through Him forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and through Him everyone who believes is freed from all things, from which you could not be freed through the Law of Moses.
In contrast to the legalism of first-century Judaism, Paul asserted that faith in Christ can do what keeping the Law of Moses could never do. Forgiveness from sin (and true spiritual freedom) comes only through the work of Christ, and not through keeping the Mosaic Law.
In Acts 14, we learn that the missionaries traveled from there to several other cities. In every place, they were advancing the gospel of grace—proclaiming to both Jews and Gentiles that salvation comes by grace through faith in Christ alone. In Acts 14:27, they finally returned to their sending church. Luke describes their homecoming with these words: “When they had arrived and gathered the church together, they began to report all things that God had done with them and how He had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles. And they spent a long time with the disciples.”
Their first missionary journey was over, and by all estimates, it has been a great success. Though it lasted many months, and though Paul and Barnabas were severely persecuted and nearly killed, new churches had been planted in Asia Minor. The gospel had been proclaimed to the Gentiles. And the believers responded with great joy and thanksgiving to God.
But controversy was about to erupt…
The Perversion of the True Gospel (Acts 15:1–5)
Acts 14 ends with the church in Syrian Antioch rejoicing over the success of the first missionary journey. By contrast, Acts 15 opens with these words:
Some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” And when Paul and Barnabas had great dissension and debate with them, the brethren determined that Paul and Barnabas and some others of them should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders concerning this issue. Therefore, being sent on their way by the church, they were passing through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and were bringing great joy to all the brethren. When they arrived at Jerusalem, they were received by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they reported all that God had done with them. But some of the sect of the Pharisees who had believed stood up, saying, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to direct them to observe the Law of Moses.” (Acts 15:1–5)
In Acts 13:38–39, Paul had told the Jews of Psidian Antioch that faith in Christ does what the Law of Moses could not do: it brings salvation from sin. But now, a group of former Pharisees was insisting that faith in Christ was not enough. In addition to faith, they argued that both circumcision (Acts 15:2) and keeping the Mosaic Law (Acts 15:5) were necessary for salvation.
This was no small matter.
The heart of the gospel was at stake: Is salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone? Or is salvation based on one’s observance of the Law of Moses?
Paul and Barnabas had just been on an extensive missionary journey. And now these former Pharisees, who later became known as the Judaizers, were claiming that the gospel of grace—the gospel Paul and Barnabas had been preaching—was incomplete and illegitimate unless it included legalistic works. It’s no wonder that, as Luke explains, great dissension and debate arose among them. And so Paul and Barnabas travelled to Jerusalem to settle the matter once and for all.
The Preservation of the True Gospel (Acts 15:6–11)
When he arrived in Jerusalem, Paul first met with several apostolic leaders privately—explaining to them the gospel message that he had been preaching (Gal. 2:2). Those leaders (including Peter, John, and James, the half-brother of Jesus) agreed that Paul’s gospel of grace was, indeed, the true gospel (Gal. 2:8–9). But the controversy still needed to be publically addressed at the Jerusalem Council.
Acts 15:6–11 describes what happened at the council. According to verse 6, “The apostles and the elders came together to look into this matter.” After “much debate” (v. 7), the apostle Peter stood up in defense of the true gospel. Here is what he said:
“Brethren, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles would hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, testified to them giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us; and He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith. Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are.” (Acts 15:7b–11)
With succinctness and clarity, Peter affirmed several key aspects of the true gospel.
- In verse 7, he confirmed the fact that it was right for Gentiles to hear the gospel and believe.
- In verse 8, he acknowledged that the Gentiles had received the Holy Spirit just as Jewish believers had on the Day of Pentecost.
- In verse 9, he emphasized that God had cleansed their hearts through faith.
- In verse 10, he explained that the Mosaic Law was a burden that was not necessary for salvation.
- And in verse 11, he reiterated the truth that all Christians (both Jew and Gentile) are saved by grace.
Peter’s words provided an authoritative articulation and defense of the gospel Paul had been preaching—namely that salvation is by grace through faith, and not as a result of works. James, the brother of our Lord, and the rest of the Jerusalem Council agreed with Peter—noting that Gentile Christians did not need to be circumcised or keep the Mosaic Law in order to be saved. In verses 20–21, they did ask Gentile believers to be sensitive to certain things for the sake of Jewish believers who have stricter consciences. (Those requests fit with Paul’s instruction about weaker brothers in Romans 14–15 and in 1 Corinthians 8–9.)
But the summary judgment of the Jerusalem Council agreed completely with Peter’s testimony in verses 7–11. The burden of the Mosaic Law should not be required of new converts, because salvation is not by works. Rather, it is by grace through faith. Here then, at the first church council, the gospel of grace was clearly affirmed; and the legalism of the Judaizers was roundly condemned. After this, according to verse 30, Paul and Barnabas went back to Antioch and stayed there for awhile.
Even though the Judaizers had been defeated, they still continued to wreak havoc in the church. At some point, their influence began to infiltrate the churches of Southern Galatia that Paul and Barnabas had planted on their first missionary journey. In the very cities where Paul had nearly been killed, the churches he planted were starting to be confused by legalistic false teachers who claimed that the gospel of grace was insufficient.
Paul responded by writing a letter to the believers in those churches. That epistle, known as the book of Galatians, began with a stern warning against adding works to the gospel. To do so would be to embrace “a different gospel” (Gal. 1:6), which in reality is no gospel at all. Only the true gospel can save. Any other version must be discarded and denounced.
Thus, the true gospel of grace was both proclaimed and preserved in the earliest decades of church history—such that Paul could later tell the Ephesians, “By grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8–9).
But what about the centuries after the apostolic age ended? In Part 4 of this series we will look beyond New Testament history at the centuries that followed. Did the church fathers maintain a commitment to the gospel of grace? Or did they, like the Judaizers, fall into the error of making the offer of salvation contingent upon good works?
(To Be Continued)