Recently I received the following question from Glenn Saarinen of Hibbing, Minnesota: “What was the spiritual condition of the Judaizers of Acts 15:1? It seems that they believed in justification by faith plus works, but they also seemed to be in fellowship in the church in Jerusalem.”
That is certainly a great question!
Here is the verse: “And certain men came down from Judea [to Antioch] and taught the brethren, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.'”
Paul and Barnabas were in Antioch when this false teaching was propagated. They had just returned from their first missionary journey (Acts 13-14).
A heated debate ensued between the Judaizers and the apostles. The church at Antioch evidently was deeply disturbed over this matter. They decided to send Paul and Barnabas and some other brethren from the church at Antioch to Jerusalem. They wanted the mother church to give an official ruling on this matter.
It is not clear whether the Judaizers went to Jerusalem as well. Luke does not mention those men again.
Luke does indicate, however, that there were other men from the Jerusalem church at the Jerusalem Council meeting who demanded circumcision of Gentiles (v.5). Interestingly, Luke explicitly says that they were believers: “But some of the sect of the Pharisees who believed rose up…”
Luke makes no reference to these men demanding circumsion for salvation. While it is possible they held that view, it seems more likely—in light of Luke’s failure to identify them as he did the men in verse one—that they demanded circumcision for sanctification only.
The Judaizers’ Spiritual Condition
Luke describes the individuals in verse one differently from the men in verse five in two ways. 1) He does not say that they believed. This omission, when contrasted with the explicit reference to faith on the part of the men in verse five, is probably telling. 2) And, as just mentioned above, Luke indicates that the men of verse one demanded circumcision for salvation.
It is impossible to be certain of the spiritual condition of the men in verse one since Luke doesn’t explicitly say. Certainly it is conceivable that a believer, even whole churches, might be pulled into such teaching. We have New Testament proof of that fact (Gal 1 :6-9;2:11ff.). However, it seems likely, since Luke doesn’t call them believers while he does the men of verse five, that they were unsaved.
Had the Jerusalem Church
Tolerated False Gospel Proclamation?
If the men of Acts 15:1 were promoting a false gospel, why, then, did they receive such a ready audience by the brethren of the church at Antioch? The most logical explanation is that they came from the mother church in Jerusalem. That would gain them a ready audience. Nevertheless, Luke does say that they had indeed come down from Judea (Acts 15:1)—the region whose leading city is Jerusalem.
Why, then, as Glenn asked, were these Judaizers evidently accepted by the church at Jerusalem? Did the Jerusalem church allow such distortions of the gospel to be promoted in its midst prior to the Jerusalem Council?
Surely the Jerusalem church had not tolerated such teaching. The response of Peter and James and the whole church in Acts 15:6-29 strongly suggests this.
Evidently these men did not show their true colors while in Jerusalem. They probably gave lip service to the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith alone. However, their true feelings came out when they got away from Jerusalem. They showed in Antioch that they actually believed in works salvation. Once their true beliefs were known, their fellowship with the church was surely discontinued.
There are many today who could rightly be called Judaizers. They say that in order to be saved one must keep the Law of Moses.
There are many others today who, although not strictly Judaizers, add to the sole condition of faith for salvation.
If we discover people in our churches who are actively promoting a false gospel, we should ask them to desist or else leave the fellowship. We must not allow people in the church, whether they are misled believers or unbelievers, to promote a false gospel (Gal 1:8-9).
This is, of course, a tricky point. Are we not to try to win unbelievers? Should we not invite unbelievers to church?
Unbelievers should be welcome at church as long as they do not begin promoting a false gospel. If an unbeliever becomes a regular attender at church and begins promoting a false gospel, it is up to the church leaders to ask him to stop or leave. There is a limit to the graciousness of a church body. That limit is the promotion of a false gospel in our fellowship.
Bob Wilkin is the Executive Director of Grace Evangelical Society.