What would you add to the incomplete statement in the title I put to this post? Some people might add: “…unless you are baptized,” or “…unless you stop smoking, drinking taking drugs.” Some who are anti-gay might add: “…unless you stop doing what you are doing.” I suppose the replies could be as many as there are people who believe God exists. Only God knows what some would add to the title above.
In the first century the Jews’ religion had the distinction of being the only faith on earth ever founded by God. Actually, Christianity began as a product that religion. In fact, in the beginning believers in Christ were seen as part of the Jewish faith. It was only “natural” for the zealous of the new faith to assume that, if one wished to worship the God of Israel, one had to become a Jew. Every believer in Jesus during the beginning years of the Faith saw themselves as part of the Jewish religion. Nevertheless, this was soon to change, and the understanding of who could be a legitimate worshiper of the God of the Jews became very complicated indeed.
During his ministry to the gentiles at Antioch, Paul had to confront members of the Jewish sect of believers (Acts 15:1) for trying to teach the gentile believers that they had to become Jews (members of the Jewish faith, keeping the law just as they did—for that is what “circumcision implied) in order to be saved. In other words, it was not by Jesus alone or by grace alone, but Jesus plus… or grace plus…, which is no grace at all.
The dispute became hot and heavy for awhile and one of two things occurred, according to Acts 15:2. Either the gentile church in Antioch asked Paul to settle this question in Jerusalem with the other apostles, or the Jewish sect who taught circumcision was necessary for salvation was beginning to see Paul’s point of view and felt uncomfortable deciding for themselves and asked Paul to return with them to settle the matter in Jerusalem. In any event, Paul and company went to Jerusalem to discuss the matter with the other apostles and recognized leaders of the Faith.
Paul speaks of this matter in more depth in Galatians 1 and 2. There he says that some of the Jewish brethren who held to this doctrine were false brethren that crept into the church specifically in order to win the believers over to this mindset (Galatians 2:1-2). Knowing that those who believed this way were members of the sect of the Pharisees (Acts 15:5), there is little doubt that their fundamental motive was one of more political power in their struggle with the Sadducees.
In the middle of the debate, Peter stood and quieted everyone (Acts 15:7) in order to remind them how God chose that the very first gentiles heard the Gospel through him (Acts 10), and at that time the Holy Spirit fell down upon unbaptized and uncircumcised gentiles. In this act, God showed he placed no difference between the gentiles he would call and the Jewish believers in Christ. Both were alike in his eyes, just as we all are (Acts 15:9).
The concluding decision of the conference (Acts 15:19-21) was that the Jewish believer should not trouble the gentiles about circumcision—having to obey Jewish customs in order to be saved. In return, since this meant that Jewish brethren in Christ could fellowship with uncircumcised gentile believers without compromising their Jewish traditions, they (the gentile believers) need to make some concessions and be mindful of not offending their Jewish brethren by flaunting their freedom in Christ in such a manner that it made light of how the Jewish believers worship God.
So, what is the answer to “You cannot be saved unless…”? I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again the theology is spelled out in Romans 10:9-10 and the practice is lived out in Luke 23:42. Paul said that all a person needs to do is believe in his heart that Jesus died for our sins and God raised him from the dead—and confess this to others with his own lips. This was done in effect by the murderous thief on the cross, and Jesus said: “I am telling you today (when everything seemed so bleak and such a failure), you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). The salvation formula comes from Jesus’ own lips, and we dare not depart from his teaching (2John 1:9).
What a wonderful God we serve. It isn’t all that difficult to understand his will for us, nor is it hard for us to obey him. Yet, so many refuse him! What a testimony to the heart of man and the heart of God! God help us!