The Apostles, Salvation by Grace Through Faith, and the Mosaic Covenant
Did God lead the apostles to preach salvation by grace through faith apart from the Mosaic Law?
Over the years some have questioned whether the early church originally preached salvation by faith in Jesus Christ and following the Mosaic Covenant. They wonder if the early church under the influence of the apostle Paul decided on their own that the Mosaic Covenant should be dropped so the Gentiles would more easily accept the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The clear testimony of the Bible is that the Mosaic Covenant was given by God for a temporary period of time in order to govern the Jews when they became a nation (See article under “Questions and Answers“ entitled “What is the Relationship Between Jews and the Abrahamic and Mosaic Covenants?” Jesus came and completed that covenant and it is no longer valid.
God led the early church to preach the gospel of salvation by grace through faith alone! We can see this from the following:
1. God Himself moved the early church to bring the Gentiles into the kingdom without the Mosaic Covenant. It was not their idea; it was God’s.
God initiated the movement to win the Gentiles to Christ without the Mosaic Covenant.
This is clearly shown in the Book of Acts.
Look at Acts 10:1-8.
An angel sent by God appeared to Cornelius, a Gentile, to go to Peter for the message of salvation.
God spoke to the apostle Peter about the salvation of the Gentiles by showing him that the dietary laws of the Mosaic Covenant no longer applied symbolizing that the Mosaic Covenant was no longer valid.
God tells Peter to eat unclean animals (totally against the Mosaic Covenant).
Peter has the same reaction any Jew would have had. “No way.” I’m sure Peter was eating “kosher” and following the Mosaic Covenant’s dietary laws. But God was now telling Peter something has changed.
The Holy Spirit says that Peter is not to call anything impure that God has made clean. This is clear revelation that the dietary restrictions were now over and that the other restrictions regarding reaching out to Gentiles were over as well. God now considers the Gentiles “clean,” that is, not needing ceremonial purification to come to salvation (this will become obvious as Acts 10 unfolds).
While Peter is wondering about the revelation, he is summoned to Cornelius’ house and goes to him.
Peter preaches the gospel to Cornelius.
What does Peter say is the reason that he was standing in the house of Cornelius in v.28?
He says, “but God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean…”
God did it. God was orchestrating this incredible event.
What does Peter preach to Cornelius?
In v. 43 “To him all the prophets give witness, that through his name whoever believes in him shall receive forgiveness of sins.”
He preaches salvation by grace through faith alone (without the Mosaic Covenant).
In v.44 the Holy Spirit comes upon all the Gentiles who were there (who had obviously accepted Christ in their hearts as Peter shared the gospel.)
In v.45, why were the Jewish believers with Peter astonished that Cornelius and his household had received the Holy Spirit?
Because they thought that the Gentiles would have to be brought into the Mosaic Covenant to receive the promise of the Holy Spirit which they thought was just for the Jews. But here were Gentiles who had been saved, yet had not had a chance to be circumcised and begin following the Law, yet they had the Holy Spirit. How could this be?
God had promised in the Old Testament that the Jews would receive the Holy Spirit as they entered God’s kingdom.
See the OT promises of the Spirit: Isa.32:15 Isa.44;3 Ezek.36:25-27 Joel 2:28
See Peter’s proclamation to the Jews in Acts 2:16-21 and 2:38.
Notice in Acts 2:16-17 “But this is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel; And it shall come to pass in the last days, says God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh…”
The Spirit would come upon all flesh (all people) not just Jews.
The Jews were wrong to think that they or those converted to Judaism were the only ones to receive the Holy Spirit was right. The Gentiles had received the Holy Spirit simply by trusting Christ.
But how do Peter and the Jewish believers respond? Peter realizes based on his previous revelation, that God was giving salvation to the Gentiles apart from the Mosaic Covenant and so he baptized them which was the evidence that they were now in God’s kingdom.
Peter accepts God’s will. Period.
Peter returns to criticism because he had broken the Mosaic Law.
Peter goes into his whole story about how the Lord Himself led him to do this. He finishes in v.17 by asking, “How could I oppose God when he gave the Gentiles the same gift as he gave us Jews?”
The difficulty the Jewish believers were having is not the giving of salvation to the Gentiles, they had always accepted Gentiles as long as they were circumcised and followed the Law. The objection was bringing them into the kingdom of God without the Mosaic Covenant.
How do the Jewish Christians react to what Peter says?
v. 18 They accept it. They probably had doubts, but they accepted it because God did it and they did not want to oppose God.
Those Jewish Christians accepted it and they were there.
Look at Acts 15.
In Acts 15 when the early church was trying to figure out what to do with the Gentiles. It was time to make a definitive statement on this.
Peter shares what he thinks. Look at the stronger words he uses in his exhortation. He says the Jewish Christians were testing God by going against what he is doing. Then in v.11 Peter gives a strong statement that salvation is of God’s grace and faith alone.
By the way, the gospels show clearly that Peter was in Jesus’ inner circle and was probably the leader of the apostles. He was held in high regard by the Jewish Christians.
Then James speaks and uses the OT to justify this and agrees with Peter.
In their letter to the churches, in v.28 James says the Holy Spirit is involved in this process.
Also, notice in v.12, that Paul is right in the middle of this whole thing. And in v.25 Paul is sent to the Gentiles to reveal this to them.
So we should not be surprised that Paul, whose ministry was primarily to the Gentiles, spends time in his letters talking about this subject.
This is the united the testimony of the early church. They all agreed. And remember, they were Jews!
According to the testimony of the Book of Acts, Peter and the other apostles would never have come up with getting rid of the Law to win Gentiles. They would have opposed Paul if they had not had the work of God in moving them toward it.
2. Paul shows why the Mosaic Covenant was no longer valid after Jesus came which explains why God led Peter and the early church in this way.
Here is an outline of Galatians 3:15-25.
Some had come into the Galatian churches teaching that salvation was not by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone, but that a person still needed to be circumcised and follow the Mosaic Law (covenant) along with faith in Christ.
This false doctrine was based on a misunderstanding of the relationship between the Abrahamic covenant and the Mosaic covenant.
The Abrahamic covenant was the covenant of unconditional promise of salvation to all men (who would accept it by faith) God made with Abraham. The Mosaic covenant was the covenant of conditional law God made with Moses to govern Israel as a nation, to condemn men in sin, and to lead people to Christ as they recognized their need for forgiveness.
The Abrahamic Covenant is based on the unconditional promises of God and is superior to the Mosaic Covenant which is based on conditional law and works.
Uncondtional promises of God = salvation by grace through faith
I. The nature of the Abrahamic covenant v.15-18
A. As any covenant, it cannot be added to at a later time v.15 B. It is a covenant spoken to Christ and must be fulfilled in Christ v.16 C. As any covenant, it cannot be nullified later on v.17 D. Salvation cannot be based on a covenant of promise and a covenant of law/works v.18
II. The nature of the Mosaic Covenant v.19-25
A. It was added (not to the Ab. Cov.) because of sin v.19a
B. It was given for a temporary period until Christ came v. 19b
C. It was not given for salvation (opposing the Ab. Cov.) v.21
D. It was given to condemn men for sin and to be a moral tutor to lead people to Christ (thus complementing the Ab. Cov.) v.22-25